Stacy Branch residents spared while ruling appealed

Residents of the Stacy Branch and Lotts Creek communities in Knott and Perry counties were relieved last week when a federal judge placed a temporary halt on mining activities that involve a massive valley fill.

U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell agreed to issue an injunction to stop mining operations while his August 23 decision is being appealed. In that decision, Russell rejected claims by local residents, KFTC and the Sierra Club that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erred by ignoring evidence of the human health impacts that would result from the environmental destruction to be caused by the valley fill.

Cordia SchoolThe Corps issued that permit last year to Leeco. It allows 3.5 miles of streams to be destroyed through one valley fill, one sediment pond and various “mine throughs” on tributaries of Stacy Branch and Yellow Creek of Carr Creek, located in Knott and Perry counties.

In making the decision, Corps officials said burying more than three miles of streams would “not significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

“As a teacher I work with children and families who are hoping they will be able to live their lives in eastern Kentucky. The impacts on their health from these mines needs to be taken very seriously as we try and look at the type of future we are creating for our students and their families,” said Alice Whitaker, director of the Lotts Creek Community School and Wellness Program and a KFTC member.

“Therefore, we are relieved to hear that a hold was put on the destructive mining above our community. We cannot carry on the way we have in the past especially when job-creating alternative sources of energy are readily available. That’s how we can work towards a brighter future, and it starts with our leaders and regulatory agencies acknowledging the importance of the health and well-being of our communities.”

In granting the injunction, Russell agreed with arguments that allowing Leeco to begin mining would create irreversible destruction that would make an appeals court victory moot for local residents.

“We are enormously relieved that Appalachian communities and our streams will continue to be protected until our appeal can be decided on the merits,” said Lane Boldman, the Sierra Club’s Kentucky director. “Numerous studies have shown that mountaintop removal mining poses a grave threat to the health of mountain residents, and the Army Corps of Engineers should fully address that issue before issuing permits allowing more of these highly destructive mines.”

Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley explained that the Corps violated some of its own rules and the federal Surface Mining Act by issuing the permit, but that these were ignored by the court.

“The court rejected all of our claims, which fall into two categories: health and water quality. First, the court approved the Corps’ decision to limit its NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis to water quality and ignore human health. It closely followed a Fourth Circuit decision, reasoning that since states regulate mining under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the normal requirement to consider health under NEPA doesn’t apply in these circumstances. This is despite the fact that the Surface Mining law says expressly that it is not intended to limit NEPA.

“The court also approved the Corps’ conclusion that Leeco’s stream enhancement projects would fully compensate for the streams that mining will bury. We argued that the Corps had violated several of its own regulations in approving the mitigation projects, but the court held repeatedly that the Corps’ analysis was good enough, reasoning that courts are generally supposed to defer to agencies in their area of expertise.”

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