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WWF Protecting U.S. Southeast Rivers and Streams from Coal Mining

WWF and a coalition of regional and national conservation groups is protecting the U.S. Southeast Rivers and Streams - home to the highest number of endemic freshwater fauna in North America. Along with our partners, we are urging federal agencies to fully and carefully assess the impacts of coal mining on the region's most vulnerable wildlife - as required by law.

A long-standing, overly general Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) "biological opinion" concluded that no coal mining operation anywhere in the United States would ever jeopardize threatened or endangered species listed then or in the future. FWS concluded that the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act provided sufficient protection for all listed species. As a result, neither FWS, the agency that regulates surface mining, nor mine operators are required to assess or avoid the impacts of mining on protected species. However, despite the surface mining law, damaging coal mining is continuing and Appalachia's rivers and aquatic creatures are suffering.

WWF and partners are taking action to protect the U.S. Southeast Rivers and Streams - part of North America's natural heritage. We recently filed a formal petition with the FWS and the Office of Surface Mining (OSM), detailing the extensive environmental damage from mountaintop removal and other surface coal mining that has occurred in the Appalachian region despite the mining law. More than 1,200 stream miles in four states, including Tennessee and Virginia, have been damaged or destroyed between 1992 and 2002.

While the FWS biological opinion applies nationwide, WWF is focused on three watersheds in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia that have been especially damaged by coal mining: the Clinch and Powell Rivers and the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. These watersheds are part of the Tennessee and Cumberland river systems which have the highest number of fish, crayfish and mussel species on the continent. Studies within the last ten years document significant declines of aquatic species in stretches of the rivers closest to active mining, and link the decline to mining.

Fast Facts on the Rivers

  • Clinch River: home to at least 126 native fish species and 44 species of mussels. There are 38 active coal mines in the upper Clinch River watershed in Virginia.
  • Powell River: once home to at least 41 species of mussels and 90 species of fish. There are 48 active mine operations in the upper Powell River watershed in Virginia.
  • Big South Fork of the Cumberland: home to 68 fish species and 23 mussel species. There are 15 active coal mine operations in Tennessee's New River watershed, the headwaters of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland.

Read the coalition press release

Read the fact sheet