The Sierra Club and several other groups claim in a lawsuit filed last week that FWS did not use the most up-to-date science when it agreed to allow surface mining at Zeb Mountain and Davis Creek. They say two endangered fish are threatened by the mining work because the runoff water from the sites is high in dissolved salts, making nearby streams too salty for the blackside dace and Cumberland darter to survive.
"We take very seriously our duty to protect endangered species, and we will look at all aspects of this lawsuit to ensure the best protection for the species involved," Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie said in a phone interview from his Atlanta office. He said the service's legal advisers will prepare an appropriate response to the suit.
The weathering of newly exposed bedrock from surface mining is what creates the dissolved salts, and the level is measured by running an electrical current through the water. The higher the conductivity of the water (or its ability to carry the current) the saltier it is.
Gregory Buppert is an attorney for the group Defenders of Wildlife, which is one of the plaintiffs in the case. He said the mines "do take steps to meet the standards required by the state of Tennessee for wastewater discharges, but conductivity in Tennessee is unregulated."
Buppert said this is the only case he is aware of that targets surface mining activities for violations of the Endangered Species Act.
The suit filed in federal court in Nashville also names the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement as a defendant. The suit asks the court to vacate the permits for the two mines, place an injunction on the discharge of high-conductivity wastewater from the mines and order the Fish and Wildlife Service to consult with the Office of Surface Mining on the protection of the endangered fish.