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Massive Mountaintop Removal Mine Threatens Clearfork Valley

April Jarocki and Appalachian Voices' Matt Hepler stand next to mining equipment next to the Hatfield Cemetery near Cooper Ridge Mine.

April Jarocki and Appalachian Voices’ Matt Hepler stand next to mining equipment next to the Hatfield Cemetery near Cooper Ridge Mine.

RSVP to attend a public hearing on September 20 to voice your opposition to this mine.

The devastating practice of destroying entire mountains and disposing of mining-waste into headwater streams is still happening across the Appalachian region. For folks living beneath these mines, the assertion that mountaintop removal is over can feel like a slap in the face. Despite dynamics and shifts in energy markets, when there is a mountaintop removal mine above your community, the issue is as dire as ever.

The Clearfork Valley of Tennessee has been intensely surface-mined going back decades. As a result, the ridges and hillsides of Campbell and Claiborne counties display a patchwork of mining scars in various states of affliction and gradual healing. Some of these scars are pre-regulation Abandoned Mine Lands while others illustrate the failures of common reclamation standards. The area’s waterways are contaminated to varying degrees with metals, salts and sediment, and support far less aquatic life than they once did.

Now, Kopper Glo Mining is moving forward with a nearly 1,500-acre mountaintop removal mine on Cooper Ridge, dealing yet another massive blow to the ecology and communities of this beautiful and resilient area.

Agency missteps in the permitting process

Kopper Glo began operations on Cooper Ridge Mine this past spring, clearing initial, albeit insufficient, regulatory hurdles. Now the company is seeking a Phase II National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit required under the Clean Water Act for discharging pollutants into public waterways. The second phase allows the company to release higher levels of pollutants than allowable under the Phase I permit.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s (TDEC) issuance of water pollution permits in phases is a notable problem. This allows the agency — whose mission includes “protecting and improving the quality of Tennessee’s air, land, and water through a responsible regulatory system” — to ignore the true total impacts of a mining operation on adjacent waterways by only considering portions of the mine’s impacts at any one time.

Another issue is that Kopper Glo and regulatory agencies consider this operation a “re-mining” project, suggesting that the area is already impacted by mining and that the Cooper Ridge mountaintop removal mine will serve to reclaim and improve previously mined areas. The truth is that only around one-third of the permitted area has been impacted by older strip mines. Rather than repair old scars of mining, the Cooper Ridge permit will simply triple the footprint of mining on this mountain.

Finally, Kopper Glo has a long history of violations at other mines in the area. Regulatory agencies like TDEC and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement should not be so quick to grant additional permits to a company that has consistently demonstrated either an inability or unwillingness to operate within the confines of the law.

What’s wrong with this mine?

Any surface mine of this size will have severe impacts on ecology and nearby communities. This is especially true in areas like East Tennessee, where headwater streams abound and where homes are crowded into narrow valleys often right at the toe of mining operations. Concerns include excessive runoff, sedimentation of streams, alterations to groundwater hydrology and the discharge of high levels of selenium and other harmful substances into waterways.

In addition to adverse impacts to ground and surface water, the Cooper Ridge mine threatens important local community and cultural assets. The permit boundary sits just a half-mile behind Clairfield Elementary School, presenting concerns for the health and safety of the students, teachers and community members engaged in activities at the school. The mine also surrounds the historic and still-in-use Hatfield Cemetery — an area where logging related to the mine has already occurred and where mine workers are now parking trucks and equipment.

Speak out against the Cooper Ridge mountaintop removal mine

You can support residents of the Clearfork Valley by attending a public hearing on September 20 to voice your opposition to this mine. The hearing will be held from 7:00-9:00 p.m. in the Recreation Building at Cove Lake State Park, 110 Cove Park Ln., Caryville, TN. Visit this page to RSVP, find a ride and connect with other people and resources if you’d like to attend this hearing. If you can’t make it to the hearing but want to make sure your voice is heard, you can submit a comment to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Whether you speak out at the public hearing or submit your comments online, preparation and clarity are key. Feel free to utilize any of the talking points below in developing your comments.

Talking Points

  • Permitting in Phases: TDEC must consider all of the discharges from the entire proposed mine in a single permit process. By issuing water pollution permits in at least two separate phases, TDEC has failed to account for the full impact to the receiving streams.
  • Impacts of Re-Mining: TDEC should not assume that re-mining will lead to an overall decrease in pollution from the site. In fact, evidence suggests that streams in the Clear Fork watershed have only recently begun to recover from the pollution impacts of historic mining and that recent mining has started to reverse that trend.
  • Compliance History: The agencies should not reward a chronic violator with permits for a new surface mine. The permit application lists at least 17 notices of violation from OSM to Kopper Glo for its other coal mining operations in less than three years, including many violations related to water quality.
  • Cumulative Impacts: Permitting authorities must address the cumulative impacts of water pollution discharged from all existing and proposed strip mines in the Clear Fork watershed before issuing any new permits.
  • Selenium: The draft permit violates the Clean Water Act because it fails to fully evaluate the reasonable potential of discharges from the mine to violate water quality standards for selenium. Given that selenium is known to be present in variable concentrations in coal seams in Tennessee, TDEC should require the applicant to conduct and report representative core sampling to determine whether selenium is likely to be present in the coal to be mined from the site.
  • Groundwater Impacts: This mine would affect groundwater because it will change the hydrology of the east side of Cooper Ridge and release pollutants now contained in the coal and the overburden at the site. Groundwater and surface water resources are closely connected in this area. There are at least seven households and two churches that use springs or wells for their water supply.
  • Impacts on Sensitive Species: The blackside dace, a freshwater fish, is protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, in part because of pollution from surface coal mining. The Cooper Ridge mine will discharge polluted runoff water to tributaries of the Clear Fork, an important corridor that blackside dace use seasonally to seek spawning habitat in smaller streams. Blackside dace are extremely intolerant of elevated conductivity levels caused by dissolved solids from polluted mining runoff. Any discharge permit for the mine must impose limits on conductivity to avoid further harm to blackside dace.
  • Community Cemetery: This mine will be near family cemeteries which must be protected. Community members must be able to access family cemeteries on Cooper Ridge, and we ask that the deep mine portal be moved further than 100 feet away from the Hatfield Cemetery.
  • Economics: Tourism is important to the current and future economy of Tennessee. The Tackett Creek Wildlife Management area surrounds the proposed Cooper Ridge mine. This area has great potential for increased ecotourism that can benefit Tennessee’s economy more than another strip mine.



Share your concerns about mountaintop removal health impacts

The National Academy of Sciences is undertaking a review of existing research on links between mountaintop removal coal mining and health risks. The review is funded by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in response to a request from the state of West Virginia. As part of the review, the NAS is hosting public meetings to gather information from impacted communities.

public comment meeting will be held on Monday, Aug. 21st from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Perry County Public Library in Hazard, Ky.

On Tuesday, Aug. 22, the NAS will host a panel of scientists and state regulators in Lexington, Ky. This session will be from 12:45 to 5:00 p.m. at the Griffin Gate Marriott and is open to the public.

You are welcome to join either session, but attending the public comment session on Monday will be most impactful. You are not required to speak, but we encourage you to do so. If you have been directly impacted by mining, consider sharing information you have, such as well water data, air pollution issues or personal health impacts.

Representatives from member groups of The Alliance for Appalachia and allies will be attending. We will be available on Monday at 5:30 p.m. to provide suggested talking points to those who want to speak during the town hall.

Can’t attend the meetings? Submit your comments online today!




The RECLAIM Act is under attack from corporate coal interests

The darker the red, the greater the extend of remaining abandoned mines. Image: The Daily Yonder.

The darker the red, the greater the extend of remaining abandoned mines. Image: The Daily Yonder.

The RECLAIM Act is going to a vote before the House Natural Resources Committee TOMORROW. Despite having shown no interest in the legislation over past the past two years, corporate coal interests have launched an all-out assault to kill the bill in the past few days.
We can’t let corporate interests steal this opportunity from folks trying to build a bright future for their home. The RECLAIM Act would create thousands of jobs in communities struggling with the decline of the coal industry. RECLAIM is sponsored by Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and a bipartisan set of cosponsors.

The legislation would use $1 billion sitting idle in Washington to put people to work cleaning up abandoned coal mines.

It could also spur the reuse of reclaimed mines for development projects that would diversify local economies, like this agriculture project in West Virginia. But the current bill language needs to be strengthened in order to catalyze economic projects like these. Representative Don Beyer will offer an amendment on Tuesday to strengthen the bill.

RECLAIM would be funded through a $2.5 billion federal fund that has been financed by the coal industry over the past 40 years. The RECLAIMAct doesn’t use a cent of taxpayer money. It imposes no new fees or taxes, and has no impact on the coal industry. The RECLAIM Act uses existing funds to create jobs and clean up dangerous mines.

It’s a win-win-win. We know it. You know it. Now it’s time to let Congress know it, too.

Before it’s too late, call and show your support!

Call 1-347-269-4100

Tell your representative:

“The RECLAIM Act would create thousands of jobs in struggling communities. Vote yes on the RECLAIM Act– and the Beyer amendment– tomorrow. If you don’t serve on the Natural Resources Committee, share your support with Chairman Bishop.”




Losing the Stream Protection Rule

The Stream Protection Rule was developed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) over the course of seven years during the Obama administration. The rulemaking was an effort to better protect public waterways from mountaintop removal and other destructive coal mining practices. The rule would have updated the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone Rule.

OSMRE considered new scientific studies regarding water quality and other impacts of coal mining across the country. The main purpose of the new rule was to better protect public water from the impacts of mountaintop removal and longwall underground mining. Both mining practices are particular to Appalachia, and can devastate streams by burying headwater streams under rubble, or dewatering streams when underground mines collapse.

OSMRE held many public hearings regarding the draft rule and heard comments from citizens, environmental groups and the mining industry. The final rule was extensive, covering stream impacts, as well as reclamation and monitoring requirements. But it was also moderate, and would not have ended mountaintop removal or valley filling.

The rule took effect in January 2017, but was revoked by Congress in February through the Congressional Review Act. President Trump signed the legislation rescinding the rule, and the 1983 version is now once again in effect.

While rivers and streams near coal mining sites have some protections under the old rule, as well as various requirements under the Clean Water Act, none have been sufficient to fully protect public water from coal mining pollution. Alliance groups and their allies will continue to pursue all means of protecting public water, including citizen enforcement of existing rules, and implementation of new state and federal regulations.




Protect this rare aquatic salamander

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list the Black Warrior waterdog — a rare aquatic salamander found only in the Black Warrior River basin in Alabama — as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The agency has also proposed designating nearly 670 miles of river as critical habitat for the waterdog. Because of the severity and immediacy of threats currently impacting the species, both of these actions are key to fully protecting it under the Endangered Species Act.

Much of the waterdog’s range is impacted by surface mining operations, some spanning thousands of acres. Inclusion on the federal endangered species list will not only protect the waterdog, it will also provide a new tool to communities seeking to stop the destruction of North Alabama’s mountains for coal. These mountains are the tail end of the Appalachian Mountain range, and they feed beautiful headwater streams that are rich with aquatic life — making Alabama the top state in the U.S. for freshwater aquatic biodiversity.

To take action, please use BOTH of the links below and copy and paste the sample comment provided, or write your own.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Electronic Comment Portal (for Listing as Endangered)

sample comment: The Black Warrior waterdog deserves to be listed as an endangered species. Known to be a rare species for over thirty years, it is time for this salamander to achieve full protections under the Endangered Species Act. Since the Black Warrior waterdog is only found within Alabama’s Black Warrior River basin, it is a unique natural resource worth protecting from pollution, harmful coal mining activities, and habitat degradation. Thank you for proposing to list the Black Warrior waterdog as endangered, and I trust the Fish and Wildlife Service will do so.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Electronic Comment Portal (for Critical Habitat)

sample comment: The Black Warrior waterdog deserves to have critical habitat designated, as proposed. It is time for this rare salamander to have its habitat protected under the Endangered Species Act. Since the Black Warrior waterdog is only found within Alabama’s Black Warrior River basin, it is critical to protect its habitat from pollution, harmful coal mining activities, and resulting degradation. Thank you for proposing to designate nearly 670 river miles as critical habitat for the Black Warrior waterdog, and I trust the Fish and Wildlife Service will do so.




Not another “Sink-Sink” — Prisons shouldn’t be used to reclaim strip mines

Remember “Sink-Sink,” the federal prison in Martin County, Ky., that’s slowly sinking into the earth because it was built on a former strip mine? Another Appalachian community might soon be facing this same form of “reclamation,” and they need your help fighting it.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has proposed to build a $444 million maximum security prison on an old surface mine near Roxana, in Letcher County, Ky.

Tell the Bureau of Prisons that prisons are not good reclamation, and that the government should invest in communities, not incarceration.

After the government regulated strip mining in the early 1980s, this surface mine near Roxana was chosen by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife as a prime location for its deer restocking program.

Now, the Bureau of Prisons is proposing to build a maximum security prison on it. The Kentucky River will be impacted by sedimentation and excavated mine spoil, and up to 93 acres of endangered bat habitat will be cleared.

Tell the Bureau of Prisons: surface mines in Appalachia should not be used for building prisons.

In some communities, up to 25 percent of the land has been damaged by mountaintop removal coal mining. We need real reclamation, not boondoggle prisons that are unsafe for the community and unsafe for the people who would be incarcerated there.

As Letcher County resident Mitch Whitaker wrote in a recent op-ed, “This piece of property has already been imprisoned, and it’s just now getting back to the point of literal and figurative liberation. Why do it again?”




Submit your comments on the Stream Protection Rule

This is your chance to officially tell the Obama administration to protect Appalachian streams.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has released a draft version of the Stream Protection Rule, which could be the most significant action taken to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on the region’s waterways. But we need it to be stronger, and that will only happen if the administration hears from thousands of advocates like you.

Add your voice to strengthen protections for Appalachian communities.

The Stream Protection Rule is intended to limit the dumping of toxic mountaintop removal waste into streams. We’ve been demanding these protections for almost eight years and are glad the Obama administration is finally taking action. But we need this rule to be stronger!

Appalachia’s economic future depends on sustainable communities and a healthy environment, and we can’t afford to let the coal industry weaken this proposed protection for the region’s waterways. It is more important than ever for you to add your voice in the fight against mountaintop removal.

Tell the Obama administration to finalize a strong rule that protects Appalachian streams and communities.




Tell the EPA: Protect our streams from selenium pollution

We’ve been busy this month advocating for a strong Stream Protection Rule. Now we need you to speak up on another issue threatening Appalachia: toxic selenium pollution.

This element is leaching out of mountaintop removal valley fills in devastating amounts, causing deformities in fish and endangering the health of our streams and communities.

Take action now and tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it is unacceptable to weaken selenium standards and put clean water at risk.

The significance of the EPA’s decision on a new chronic selenium standard cannot be overstated. Selenium is toxic to fish and other wildlife at very low levels and is commonly found in wastewater from mountaintop removal mines. Once it is released into waterways, selenium enters the food chain and accumulates in fish, causing reproductive failure and deformities.

Officials in Kentucky have adopted, with the EPA’s approval, a standard with serious scientific flaws that does not sufficiently protect sensitive species. Without an enforceable federal limit, citizen monitoring and enforcement under the Clean Water Act will be seriously compromised.

The comment period ends on Oct. 10. Please take action today and tell the EPA to create a selenium standard that protects fish and people from the devastating impacts of mountaintop removal.




Speak up in Lexington for a strong Stream Protection Rule

The federal Office of Surface Mining has finally released a draft version of its long-awaited Stream Protection Rule, and is holding hearings across the region to hear from community members impacted by surface coal mining. We need your help to make sure this critical rule overcomes industry opposition.

Will you join us on Sept. 3 in Lexington to show the Office of Surface Mining that Kentucky supports clean water in the state and in central Appalachia?

The coal industry has spent years trying to stall the rulemaking process and prevent science-based protections for Appalachian streams. If it succeeds in weakening the rule, hundreds of more miles of streams would be threatened by mountaintop removal.

Appalachia’s economic future depends on sustainable communities and a healthy environment. It’s crucial that we demonstrate to the agency that we’re united in support of a strong Stream Protection Rule.

Join us on Sept. 3 to demand a rule that protects Appalachia’s land, streams and people.

Where: Lexington Civic Center
430 W Vine St. Lexington, KY 40507
When: 5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.




Appalachian legislators give POWER+ the cold shoulder

Appalachia’s coal-bearing counties would directly benefit from the adoption of the POWER+ plan, a proposal in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget that would direct more than a billion dollars to Central Appalachia.

But last week, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee passed a budget bill the leaves out any mention of POWER+.

The U.S. House budget leaves Virginia entirely out of the forward-thinking Abandoned Mine Lands funding reforms that were spelled out in the POWER+ Plan. That component of the plan would send $30 million directly to the Virginia coalfields for economic development and put laid-off miners back to work cleaning up the messes left by coal companies.

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

For more background, we recommend this piece by Naveena Sadasivam for InsideClimate News, which details the curious quiet around POWER+ and how the plan has been pulled into the partisan bickering that’s embroiled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the 2016 budget process as a whole.

Under the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, sites that pose a threat to safety are prioritized over sites that offer a potential economic benefit if cleaned up. While this program has reduced potential hazards in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia and the U.S., it has done little to positively impact local economies.

The POWER+ Plan, however, calls for funds to be used for projects that not only improve the environment and reduce hazards, but also create an economic benefit for local economies.

There’s still time for both House and Senate to include the meaningful funding proposals outlined in POWER+. But in order for that to happen, we need to the Senate to hear a clear message that Appalachia deserves this much-needed funding!

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.





Appalachian Voices  •  Coal River Mountain Watch  •   Heartwood  •  Keeper of the MountainsKentuckians for the Commonwealth 

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition  •   Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowermentSierra Club Environmental Justice

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