Virginia Citizens Building a Case for Water Protection: Grassroots Efforts Lead to Lawsuit

Virginia Citizens Building a Case for Water Protection:

Grassroots Efforts Lead to Lawsuit

Across Appalachia mountaintop removal coal mines are releasing a toxic mining by-product: selenium. This heavy metal has been linked to deformities in freshwater fish and can also cause neurological damage in humans. Environmental organizations have brought several cases against coal companies for Selenium contamination; several “wins” have brought about significant change including a recent decision by Patriot Coal to end its mountaintop removal practices. In Virginia, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices, and the Sierra Club used true grassroots citizen testing procedures to build a case against Kelly Branch mine for Selenium discharges. What began as a citizen monitoring project has resulted in a successful lawsuit and rallying point for ending water pollution from mountaintop removal mining.

Citizen Monitoring on Kellys Branch

When regular folks take responsibility for local streams, the results can be powerful. Callahan Creek in Wise County, VA is in need of great care and the state hasn’t prioritized this impaired streams for years. Members of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards took it upon themselves to restore the large creek from mine pollution through public commentaries, lawsuits, and citizen monitoring efforts. To effectively protect such a large creek involves testing upstream tributaries, many of which directly receive mine runoff from permitted sediment ponds. Kellys Branch is the namesake for the mine which dumps toxic levels of selenium into this freshwater Appalachian stream. Winding through neighborhoods and forests Kellys Branch flows into Callahan Creek carrying heavy metals and suspended sediments.

The first indication of water pollution came from citizen collected data using a YSI conductivity and pH probe and sending water samples to a certified laboratory to test for heavy metals. “We were alarmed after receiving results from the lab that indicated selenium levels over the national and state regulatory limit,” says Susanna Ronalds-Hannon, an organizer with Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards at the time. This prompted Matt Hepler, with SAMS, to file a citizens inspection request with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. He was granted the opportunity to visit the sediment ponds suspected of releasing toxic selenium in October, 2011. During this inspection, Matt split water samples with the state and was able to have them tested for heavy metals. The results all showed violations of the EPA selenium standard, some as high as 14 parts per billion.

The high selenium levels violated the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement Act criteria for permitted mine pollution. Given the potential serious health risks to aquatic life and humans, SAMS, Appalachian Voices, and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against A&G Coal Corporation’s Kelly Branch Mine.

The Scoop on Selenium

Selenium is a naturally occurring element in rock geology that is harmless in small concentrations. In higher concentrations, selenium is toxic to egg laying animals such as fish and birds. Coldwater fisheries in Appalachia are adversely affected by constant selenium releases from mountaintop removal mine operations. Imagine your entire living space is laced with a toxic element you can’t see, smell, or taste. That’s the current environment for freshwater fish, insects, and macroinvertebrates in streams receiving water runoff from mine sediment ponds. Human exposure to selenium – either drinking water or eating contaminated fish – can cause decreased blood circulation or neurological deficiencies*. Since 1970, selenium has been regulated under EPA standards for a maximum of 5 parts per billion. Independent researchers, industry scientists, and federal agencies are currently compiling nationwide studies on selenium cases to revise the national standard.** Cases like Kellys Branch provide valuable evaluations of the true consequences of permitting selenium pollution in our nation’s waters.




Citizens testing in Kelly’s Branch Kelly’s Branch