Sick Streams: Environmentalists Mass Against Massey

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are ratcheting up the pressure on Massey Energy with a lawsuit that charges five Massey coal subsidiaries with thousands of Clean Water Act permit violations.

Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy went after Massey – America’s fourth largest coal company – and its subsidiaries in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in West Virginia’s Southern District Court in Charleston for allegedly violating permit limits by dumping toxic aluminum into waterways from as many as 16 mines covered under seven Clean Water Act permits in the state.

High aluminum levels can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life and have been linked to bone and brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. According to the Sierra Club, studies also show that aluminum levels pose high risks for people that have kidney disease.

In addition to the Clean Water Act violations, the suit – which features 14 claims for relief – says Massey is violating the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. It asks the court to stop Massey from continuing to operate in violation of the CWA and the SMCRA and to “immediately comply” with all effluent limitations, monitoring and reporting requirements.

The Massey subsidiaries named in the lawsuit are the Elk Run Coal Company, Independence Coal Company, Marfork Coal Company, Peerless Eagle Coal Company, and Power Mountain Coal Company.

Some of the mines are also violating permit limits for other pollutants including, iron, pH, and suspended solids, according to the suit. These mines totaled about 3,300 days of permit violations in the period from April 2008 through December 2009. “All of these violations appear to be ongoing,” Sierra Club says its media release.

“Massey puts profits before people in communities,” Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch said in a statement. “Massey is an outlaw company that continues to show contempt for the people of Appalachia.”

Comments from the other filing parties were in a similar vein.

“Massey’s water violations seem as widespread as their safety violations,” said Dianne Bady, co-director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, West Virginia.

“It’s high time Massey started paying the costs of its coal operations,” said Jim Sconyers, chair of the Sierra Club’s West Virginia Chapter.

Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy said that previous large fines have failed to deter Massey.

In January 2008, Massey agreed to pay $20 million in penalties to settle claims brought by the federal government due to pollution from its coal mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. The government had identified more than 60,000 days of violation during the period from January of 2000 through March of 2006.

Massey, based in Richmond, VA, was notified of the plan for a lawsuit in January; the company denies the allegations. The company says its compliance rate with Clean Water Act requirements is above 99 percent and promised a vigorous defense. “The lawsuit lacks merit,” says Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater. “Massey offered to meet with these groups – who are opposed to coal mining generally – to discuss their concerns, but these groups chose to file a lawsuit instead.”

In the wake of the Upper Big Branch explosion and battles over mountaintop mining, the war against the sorely beset Massey and other Big Coal companies is heating up on two fronts – pollution and safety – and it could be water that finally swamps a mining company.

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