- Associated Press - Friday, June 6, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - A federal judge has ruled that two Alpha Natural Resources mountaintop removal mines in southern West Virginia illegally polluted streams.

U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers in Huntington ruled Wednesday that the Elk Run Coal mine in Boone County and Alex Energy mine in Nicholas County harmed aquatic life in two streams — Laurel Creek and Robinson Fork.

Chambers wrote that aquatic life dwindled as the streams were “unquestionably biologically impaired.” Penalties are still undetermined.

“Losing diversity in aquatic life, as sensitive species are extirpated and only pollution-tolerant species survive, is akin to the canary in a coal mine,” Chambers wrote.

Environmental groups say it’s the first federal court ruling acknowledging damage from high conductivity discharges. The ruling says conductivity is scientifically proven to be harmful for aquatic life.

Conductivity is the ability of water to transfer electricity. High conductivity might signal presence of pollutants including chloride, phosphate and nitrate.

Company spokesman Ted Pile said Alpha plans to appeal the ruling.

“Understandably, we’re disappointed that the court disregarded the research of highly qualified experts who visited the sites and found that the streams at issue in this case suffered from common problems relating to sedimentation and temperature, proving that more factors are at play than conductivity levels,” Pile said Friday in an email.

Mountaintop mine operations literally blow up portions of mountains to unearth coal seams. Waste from the explosions is filled into valleys and streams, which can endure environmental damage.

The 2012 lawsuit by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Sierra Club cites the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

The groups heralded the decision as a victory — and a rally cry for federal environmental regulators to craft rules about conductivity standards.

“This decision will force mining companies to internalize the enormous treatment costs that they are currently avoiding and imposing on the public,” said Jim Hecker, co-counsel in the case and Environmental Enforcement Director at Public Justice.

The Environmental Protection Agency released guidance on conductivity in 2011 only to see it struck down by a federal court the next year. The court said the EPA overstepped its authority and infringed on state regulators’ duties.

The EPA appealed the decision in 2012 and the case is ongoing.

Pile, the Alpha spokesman, said the ruling wrongly strips West Virginia officials of their regulatory authority over state waters.

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