Endangered Crayfish in West Virginia Threatened as Coal Mining Resumes Near its Habitat

Published Jun 3, 2019

DOI officials allowed the resumption of coal mines jeopardizing the survival of two threatened/endangered crayfish species.

What happened: In West Virginia, officials from the Department of the Interior (DOI) allowed the resumption of about half-dozen coal mines despite the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) objections that such actions would jeopardize the survival of two threatened/endangered crayfish species. Spurred on by requests from coal industry and West Virginian officials, the DOI ignored the FWS’ right, as guaranteed under the Endangered Species Act, to administer critical habitat protections for the crayfish species.

Why it matters: Science suggests that one of the best ways to protect endangered or threatened species is to designate critical habitat for their survival, and the importance of the best available science for determining this critical habitat is codified into law under section four of the Endangered Species Act. There is strong evidence to suggest that coal mining within the watershed of crayfish-streams leads to the leaching of heavy metals into the streams, which in turn can lead to the decline of these two crayfish species. Crayfish, also called crawdads, crawdaddies, and mudbugs, are staple critters of nearly every West Virginian’s childhood. We need to carry out evidence-based protections to preserve these crayfish species for generations to come.

The Endangered Species Act and the science of conservation points to an obvious but critical way to protect endangered species, to provide them the ability to live in protected critical habitats, a science-backed approach that was compromised by political officials who wanted to advance coal mining interests in West Virginia. The Washington Post obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) showing that top officials at the Department of the Interior (DOI) overruled the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) science-based objections to the building of coal mines near streams that are inhabited by two threatened/endangered species of crayfish.

After state and industry officials appealed to the DOI, DOI officials went over the heads of FWS officials and scientists and issued a directive. The DOI directive required that mining firms draft a protection plan if operations are within 500 meters of a crayfish stream, but this is only applied if a company survey first found a threatened/endangered crayfish in a nearby stream. Several unworked mines in or nearby the crayfish’s habitat received permits and started operating just days after the DOI directive. One industry representative estimated that the directive resulted in hundreds of mining permits being issued.

Habitat loss is one of the primary threats to the two crayfish species. The Big Sandy crayfish, listed as threatened since April 2016, is estimated by FWS to have lost 62 percent of its historic habitat. The Guyandotte River crayfish, listed as endangered since April 2016, is estimated by FWS to have lost 92 percent of its historic habitat and now is only found in two streams in the West Virginia’s Appalachian region. Surface coal mining-related activities in West Virginia’s Appalachian region are the primary cause for the loss of habitat for the crayfish species. Coal extraction activities can bury the substrates that the crayfish rely on for food and shelter, degrade the water quality through chemical pollution, and certain activities (like filling valleys after conducting mountaintop removal mining) can eradicate the streams necessary for the survival of these species.

As a result, in October 2016, FWS launched plans to block the dumping of mining waste into the watersheds that flow into the crayfishes’ stream-bottom habitats. However, FWS’ plans to protect the crayfish had to be scrapped in February 2017 due to use of the Congressional Review Act, enacted by Congress and signed by President Trump, to nullify the science-based Stream Protection Rule, a rule which was designed to protect streams from the pollution generated by mining waste and debris. FWS was in the process of designing and enacting a new plan to protect the crayfish’s critical habitat when the DOI issued the directive.

The Washington Post’s FOIAs document a number of back-and-forth conversations starting in March 2017. The emails occurred between DOI officials, including then-DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke, and representatives of the coal industry, who called FWS’ actions “unilaterally imposed protective measures” that raised costs and caused delays for the coal industry. Emails also occurred between DOI officials and West Virginia officials, who called FWS’ proposal “unnecessarily over reaching.” Some DOI officials enthusiastically supported these initiatives, particularly Landon “Tucker” Davis, a DOI official who previously worked for the coal industry and was implicated in a previous attack on science, the decision to cancel a National Academy of Science’s study on the health effects associated with mountaintop removal mining. According to the FOIAs, Davis repeatedly served as a liaison between West Virginia and coal industry representatives and that an FWS official referred to Davis as the DOI “political” who complained that FWS was holding up mining permits.

The Endangered Species Act says that the federal government cannot employ actions that will jeopardize an endangered species. However, the science is clear on this – sediment and pollution from coal mines in West Virginia’s Appalachian region has been and will continue to jeopardize the two threatened/endangered crayfish species. In pursuit of catering to coal mining operations, the DOI has jeopardized the existence of two species of crayfish and prevented FWS from enacting evidence-based policies that can protect the critical habitat of these species. We have to advocate for evidence-based protections for endangered species or we risk losing them forever.