Presence of endangered species could threaten surface mine, pipeline projects

AP file photo
This undated file photo provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources shows a northern long-eared bat. The federal government is declaring the northern long-eared bat, one of North America’s most widely distributed bats a threatened species because of the spread of the deadly fungal disease, white-nose syndrome.

The presence of endangered bats at two planned surface mines in Southern West Virginia is the subject of a lawsuit notice filed Tuesday by four environmental groups, while the presence of a threatened salamander in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia has prompted the supervisor of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests to call for an alternative pipeline route to be selected.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Sierra Club filed a formal notice of intent to sue the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their alleged “failure to protect threatened northern long-eared bats at two proposed mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia.”

The northern long-eared bat, found from Maine to North Carolina in the east, with populations recorded as far west as Montana, has declined by 96 percent in its core eastern range due to the presence of white-nose syndrome.

According to the environmental groups, the bat is found at both Republic Energy’s proposed 664-acre Long Ridge Mine on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County and on Greenbrier owner, coal operator and gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice’s planned 468-acre Big Creek Mine in McDowell County. Operators of the proposed mines have failed to establish required plans to protect the bats, listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, according to the environmental groups.

“The failure to protect these bats is the latest example of coal companies getting a free pass in Appalachia when it comes to complying with the Endangered Species Act and other laws designed to protect the health of people and the environment,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The wink-and-nod compliance with the law is having devastating effects on wildlife and human communities in Appalachia.”

The presence of the federally threatened Cheat Mountain salamander and the Cow Knob salamander, listed as a “species of concern” in both West Virginia and Virginia, was cited by George Washington and Jefferson National Forests Supervisor H. Thomas Speaks Jr., as a reason for changing the route of the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In a letter sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last Thursday — the day before Dominion filed its application for FERC approval of its Atlantic Coast Pipeline route — Speaks said the “rarity and sensitivity of these species have resulted in federal listing of the Cheat Mountain salamander and in a Conservation Agreement to protect the Cow Knob salamander. Because of the potential for serious project-related impacts to the populations and habitats of the salamanders, and also because these impacts could not be mitigated, it is essential to evaluate alternatives to avoid adverse effects on these two species.”

Speaks wrote that in forest Service comments filed with FERC on July 30, FERC was urged completely avoid Cow Knob salamander habitat and to “avoid Cheat Mountain salamander populations recently discovered within the proposed pipeline route and populations potentially occurring in habitats identified as suitable but not yet surveyed.

According to Speaks, a conservation agreement between Virginia and West Virginia wildlife officials was discussed extensively during a June 30 meeting with Atlantic Coast Pipeline representatives during which “we clearly stated that project effects on Cow Knob and Cheat Mountain salamanders must be avoided and cannot be mitigated. We re-emphasized our concerns during a July 7 meeting.”

The Cow Knob salamander is found primarily on Shenandoah Mountain, which straddles the Virginia-West Virginia border. “It faces an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation,” Speaks wrote. The Cheat Mountain Salamander lives only in West Virginia and can be found in the higher elevations of Pocahontas, Pendleton, Grant, Randolph and Tucker counties.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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