The last ice age turned the Appalachians into North America's Noah's Ark.
The mountain peaks provided a last green refuge above the glaciers, drawing species from across the eastern half of continent. Some 10,000 years later, many have stayed, and the mountains are home to one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity -- from flying squirrels to freshwater mussels -- in the country. Just last month, biologists stumbled across an entire new genus of salamanders in Southern Appalachia, the first new vertebrate genus discovered in the United States in 50 years.
Beneath that biodiversity sits 28.5 billion tons of anthracite coal, according to 1998 Department of Energy estimates. The mineral is so central to the region's identity and economy that West Virginia last month declared it the official state rock.
The lucrative coal is obtained through mountaintop removal -- dynamiting the tops off the mountains and dumping the leftovers into mountain valleys and stream beds. Environmental groups say the practice is horribly destructive to the region's water, land and wildlife -- but they have been reluctant to use a powerful weapon, the Endangered Species Act, in fighting it.
The few national groups that have tried have run up against a special species review process for coal mining, and most have avoided it entirely for fear of upsetting a fragile partnership with their regional blue-collar allies.
As a result, the Appalachians have become something of a "national sacrifice area" to meet coal needs, said Tierra Curry, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
A different standard
The Endangered Species Act normally requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review any federal authorized, funded or administered action that could negatively affect endangered or threatened species. FWS biologists study projects for possible effects to the species and then can recommend alternatives, mitigation measures or even that the projects be abandoned entirely.
Environmental groups frequently sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over the agency's reviews if they think it approves a project that does not pass muster under the Endangered Species Act. They famously did so in the 1990s to halt logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest on the grounds that it would harm the spotted owl.
But the review standard is waived for coal mining. Instead, Interior relies on a document known as the "1996 biological opinion."
In 1995, the Office of Surface Mining requested clarification on the Endangered Species Act's implications for their permitting and policymaking. In the resulting 15-page document, Fish and Wildlife Service officials argue that by following the environmental provisions laid out under the Surface Mining Law, mine operators ensure protection for all current or future endangered species. Therefore, the officials argued, Interior does not require a formal review from the Fish and Wildlife Service before issuing permits for coal mines.
In place of the formal reviews, Interior's Office of Surface Mining and state regulators require mining companies to hire a government-approved contractor to conduct their own surveys for any potential endangered species. The surveys require approval from state and federal biologists, who provide informal guidance on how to minimize mines' potential effects to species, said Christy Johnson Hughes, the Fish and Wildlife Service's national energy coordinator for coal.
Would-be coal mines also require a Clean Water Act permit from U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, but while the agencies have the option to ask for formal endangered species consultations during that process, they do so "very rarely," Hughes said.