HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Environmental groups filed federal lawsuits against three coal companies Wednesday, claiming that runoff from their mountaintop removal mining sites have polluted West Virginia waterways.
The Sierra Club, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition filed the three lawsuits in federal court in Huntington.
The groups accuse Alex Energy Inc. and Fola Coal Company LLC of contaminating water in tributaries of Twentymile Creek with sulfate and other harmful chemicals. The other suit alleges that Consol of Kentucky's Peg Fork mine discharges unlawful quantities of selenium into nearby streams.
Selenium is a naturally occurring element that surface mining can release into waterways. In humans, high-level exposure can damage the kidneys, liver, and central nervous and circulatory systems.
A bill making its way through the Legislature would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to raise the allowable levels of selenium in lakes and streams. It also would order a study to determine acceptable levels of selenium specific to West Virginia.
The bill says that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been considering revising the selenium standards for several years, which raises questions about the usefulness of the current standards. The EPA would have to approve the changes.
The groups, which have spent years suing coal companies over water pollution, also have threatened federal regulators with legal action if they do not rein in state regulators. The Legislature last year passed weaker water-quality standards that resulted in 173 streams that would have made the list of impaired waterways being left off the list. Being placed on the list means a plan must be developed for improvement.
"Rather than forcing the mining companies to clean up the impaired streams, WVDEP is trying to redefine the meaning of impairment administratively so that it no longer exists while the EPA is taking a `cross your fingers and hope' approach to mining pollution," Jim Sconyers, chapter chairman of the West Virginia Sierra Club, said in a release. "So groups like ours have to do WVDEP's job. We can't allow these companies to keep poisoning our streams."