HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Mountaintop removal mines like the Highland Reylas operation proposed by Alpha Natural Resources are causing widespread water quality damage across the Appalachian coalfields, a federal judge was told Tuesday.
Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University aquatic ecologist, detailed what she said are the conclusions of numerous scientific studies about mountaintop removal's impacts on the region's important headwater streams.
"It's an enormous change in the chemistry of streams compared to what we see before mining," Bernhardt told U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers.
Bernhardt said the science is clear that mountaintop removal not only buries streams with valley fill waste piles, but also sends harmful levels of various pollution runoff into stream reaches beyond those fills.
Testifying as an expert witness for citizen groups, Bernhardt said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ignored this science when it approved Alpha's Clean Water Act permit for the 635-acre Highland Reylas Surface Mine near Ethel in Logan County.
Alpha hopes to employ about 100 people for six years of mining, and then create a 235-acre site with paved roads and utilities that could be used for temporary housing during flooding and other emergencies. The mine, though, would bury about 2.5 miles of streams beneath a valley fill and associated runoff-control structures.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other citizen groups argue that the mine would add to existing pollution problems in the Dingess Run watershed, and that the corps did not allow public input on the company's proposal to mitigate mining damage.
Citizen group lawyers Joe Lovett and Jim Hecker want Chambers to block the Alpha permit and force the corps to conduct a more detailed study, called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, before deciding if the project should go forward.
Late last week, Chambers refused to allow the citizens to challenge the Alpha mitigation plan, agreeing with the company that a federal appeals court ruling leaves that issue solely up to the Corps of Engineers.
Lawyers for Alpha and the Obama administration argue that same appeals court ruling severely limits what sort of evidence Chambers should consider and greatly ties the judge's hands in overruling any decisions the corps makes about mining permits.
C.J. Morris, a lawyer for the corps, has argued that citizen groups should not be able to produce new evidence, and should instead be forced to argue only over the documents the agency included in its formal permit record.
Alpha lawyer Bob McLusky complained citizen groups are inappropriately suing over the corps permit as a backdoor way to challenge decisions made by the state in the company's surface mining and water discharge permit.
Chambers has not fully weighed in on those issues yet.