A federal court on Friday approved a deal that requires two federal agencies to review the environmental impacts of coal mining on endangered species, including West Virginia's Guyandotte River crayfish.
Under the agreement, the Office of Surface Mining — the agency that regulates mountaintop coal mining — and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the agency that protects endangered species — will review a 1996 document or “biological opinion,” that lays out how coal mining is likely to affect endangered species or their habitat.
The deal was the result of a lawsuit filed last year by environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Sierra Club and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
They argued the endangered Guyandotte River crayfish in West Virginia was at risk because the federal government was using outdated guidelines that failed to ensure that mining does not jeopardize endangered species.
Studies have shown that air and water pollution from coal mining can harm birds, fish, crayfish, insects and freshwater mussels, as well as nearby communities.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has until Oct. 16 to review the biological opinion and submit it to the Office of Surface Mining.
In a press release announcing the decision, conservation groups called the court deal a win.
“For West Virginia to stay ‘wild and wonderful,’ as residents like to describe their state, we have to protect our animals from extinction, so it’s important that federal agencies actually do their job and take steps to make that happen,” said Jim Kotcon, conservation chair of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.
The review could affect a number of endangered species impacted by coal mining nationwide, although under the court-approved deal the agencies must also adopt specific new guidance to prevent harm to the Guyandotte River crayfish.
In January, the Fish and Wildlife service proposed designating 445 miles of streams in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia as “critical habitat” for the Guyandotte River crayfish and Big Sandy crayfish.