Alabama has more freshwater species than any other state, making it a hotspot for aquatic diversity. Unfortunately, it’s also a hotspot for coal. Coal mining threatens the existence of dozens of these species, many of which are unique to Alabama’s streams and can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Coal mining pollutes streams with sediment and nutrients, and alters the water’s chemistry. The sheer number of coal mines throughout the region multiplies these impacts, leaving imperiled freshwater mussels, fish, snails, turtles, and salamanders with only a fraction of their historic habitats.
Defenders recently filed a lawsuit challenging one of these projects: The U.S. Corps of Engineers’ approval of a permit for the Black Creek Mine near the Locust Fork River in Alabama’s Black Warrior River watershed. The Corps decided that this 287-acre mine would have no effect on species listed under the Endangered Species Act, even though nine threatened and endangered species live on or near the mining site. The project area also sits right next to critical habitat for six of these species, which the Corps failed to consider. These little freshwater species may not be the cuddliest, but they serve an important role in aquatic ecosystems, and Defenders is going to court to protect them. Meet our cast of characters:
The endangered plicate rocksnail lives in the Black Warrior River watershed and nowhere else in the world. The tiny snails, measuring barely an inch long, feed on algae, which helps keep the water clear. It once inhabited two additional river basins in Alabama, but pollution and accumulated sediment from coal mining have driven the snails out of 90% of this habitat. The plicate rocksnail is now restricted to a 20-mile stretch of the Locust Fork River and was even found in the Black Creek Mine project area.
Like the plicate rocksnail, the flattened musk turtle is unique to the Black Warrior River watershed. As the name suggests, the three to four inch aquatic turtle looks like someone stepped on its shell. The threatened turtle feeds mostly on mollusks and is an integral part of the freshwater food web. The greatest threat to this species is land erosion and siltation of its habitat, a direct result of surface coal mining. Not only do accumulated silt and sediment negatively affect the flattened musk turtle’s habitat and prey, but they can also be toxic when ingested.
The Black Warrior River watershed is home to a grand total of 127 species of freshwater fish! This rich biodiversity includes the endangered Cahaba shiner, found only in Alabama. This little freshwater fish measures under three inches long, and has been spotted in the Locust Fork near the proposed mine site. When sediment accumulates in streams, it can clog the species’ gills, suffocating this bottom-dwelling fish. Too much sediment can also reduce the availability and visibility of prey, and bury the fishes’ nests, interfering with reproduction.
The federally protected freshwater mussels in the area all have designated critical habitat in the Locust Fork next to the Black Creek Mine site. Although these mussels may not be the most charismatic species to look at, they make up for it with intriguing names like Alabama moccasinshell, dark pigtoe, orangenacre mucket, ovate clubshell, triangular kidneyshell, and upland combshell. Mussels are filter feeders and are incredibly sensitive to pollution, so their presence indicates a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Coal mining pollution is especially toxic to mussels and detrimental to their habitat.
Despite ample evidence that the Black Creek Mine could further harm these already-imperiled species, the Corps failed to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Instead, it somehow came to the illogical conclusion that the mine would have no effect on these threatened and endangered species. With more than 95 active coal mines in the Black Warrior River watershed and 171 miles of streams degraded by coal mining, the Corps’ approval of Black Creek Mine only adds insult to injury. This lawsuit is the latest on Defenders’ Southeast coal mining docket. In the past two years, we have filed four cases in the southeast aimed at protecting vulnerable freshwater species and their valuable habitat from the impacts of coal mining by protecting the clean water on which they (and we) depend for survival. With this latest effort in Alabama, we’re working to protect vulnerable freshwater species from further habitat degradation, and sending a message across the southeast that we cannot afford to let mining come at the cost of valuable streams and wildlife.
When habitats are threatened, so are the animals who live there. Our experts work on the ground, in the courts and on Capitol Hill to protect the places endangered wildlife rely on.