State strip mine regulators are allowing coal operators to illegally shave off the tops of mountains and fill in streams, a group of environmentalists and coalfield residents allege.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and 10 citizens have filed a formal notice of intent to sue the state Division of Environmental Protection over the agency's enforcement of mining laws.
Their suit will try to rein in the strip mining practice, known as mountaintop removal, in which whole tops of mountains are taken off to uncover coal reserves.
Lawyers for the Conservancy and the citizens sent a notice of intent to sue letter to DEP Director John E. Caffrey late last week.
Under federal environmental law, citizens cannot sue regulatory agencies before filing such a notice. A notice of intent to sue gives regulators 60 days to start to fix any problems and avoid a lawsuit.
"By routinely approving surface mining operations which decapitate the state's mountains and which dump the resulting 'waste' into the streams, the director has abdicated his responsibilities," the letter stated.
"Of particular concern...is the loss and degradation of West Virginia's waters associated with surface mining activities, including mountaintop removal, steep slope surface mining and other multiple seam surface mining activities," it stated.
The letter also states, "The environmental and social impacts resulting from multiple seam surface mining extend well beyond the streams that are actually filled in.
"The quantity and quality of streams in the vicinity of these operations are often adversely affected and significant portions of the state's forests, mountains and streams are destroyed," it said.
"The communities located below these massive mining operations can be devastated. The people are often effectively forced from their homes by blasting, dust, noise, flyrock, the threat of flooding, fear that the valley fills above their homes are unstable, and the degradation of stream, spring and well water."
Among the specific allegations in the letter:
Strip mine waste piles called valley fills are illegal, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is not allowed to issue "dredge and fill" permits under the Clean Water Act for dumping waste materials in streams.