By Matt Combs
May 14, 2019 - Four conservation groups have given notice to President Donald Trump’s administration that it plans to launch a lawsuit against two federal agencies and the state of West Virginia over perceived threats to endangered species from surface mining.
Made up of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Sierra Club and its West Virginia chapter, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the conservation groups sent a 60-day intent-to-sue notice last week. Named in the suit, in addition to the state, are the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (SMRE) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
The notice alleges that Trump administration officials circumvented the Endangered Species Act by using a 1996 biological opinion to allow surface mining in the habitat of the Guyandotte River and Big Sandy crayfish.
Crayfish in both locations were labeled endangered in 2016.
In a news release, the CBD alleges that state officials in West Virginia steered the Trump administration to look for shortcuts around federal law going as far as the West Virginia Division of Mining presenting a U.S. Department of Interior official a guidance document that the conservation group contends limits protections on the crayfish.
The group further alleges the state issued mining permits which caught the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by surprise as it was working to develop new guidance involving the crayfish species.
“The public records reveal extensive efforts by Trump administration appointees to prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from following science and doing what is needed to protect the crayfish,” the CBD news release reads.
According to the news release, the environmental groups gathered public records and correspondence involving the federal officials through the Freedom of Information Act, although the group had to sue because the agencies failed to act in a timely manner.
In a communication summary provided by the conservation group in its release, Landon Davis, identified as a former coal advocate who now is a policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, contacted Aurelia Skipwith, the current nominee to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking for the expedited approval of mining permits within the crayfish habitat.
In another summarized communication between Davis and Greg Sheehan, then director of the U.S. Department of Interior, Davis said regional offices were “overstepping their bounds” in the review of mining documents.
Key to the conservation groups’ suit is a 1996 biological opinion which in 2017 was reinstated after being invalidated by the Obama administration.
“The practice of avoiding, ignoring, minimizing, altering or otherwise overriding the rules of the game — the laws and regulations meant to protect waters of West Virginia — has for years led to the ongoing demise of our most valuable headwater streams and harming the people who rely on those waters for personal use and recreation,” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy in the news release. “Protecting tiny critters like the Guyandotte and Big Sandy crayfish may seem insignificant or silly to some, but what we do to the least of our fellow travelers we ultimately do to ourselves.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Big Sandy crayfish historical range included five counties in eastern Kentucky, five counties in southwestern Virginia and six counties in southern West Virginia including McDowell, Mercer and Wyoming.
The endangered Guyandotte River crayfish historical range was believed to include Boone, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Raleigh and Wyoming counties with the species only being found recently in two streams in Wyoming County.
“Extinction is forever, and the Endangered Species Act requires that all federal agencies work together to preserve our natural heritage. Every time the coal industry kills a stream, West Virginia becomes a little less ‘wild and wonderful,’ like the state’s motto proclaims. That has to stop, and the federal agencies that let it happen need to do their job,” Jim Kotcon, conservation chair of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said in the news release.