Accounts differ on what happened next. A third-party observer said that during strategy sessions among opponents of mountaintop removal mining, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice argued vigorously against pursuing the species angle.
Both groups for years have worked to build partnerships in Appalachia with local opponents of mountaintop removal mining, who the groups say are mostly concerned about the practice's damage to local land, water and public health.
According to the sources, the groups expressed fear that ongoing discussions about endangered species could hurt their cause by helping coal companies frame opponents of mountaintop removal mining as outsiders willing to sacrifice jobs in one of the country's poorest regions in order to protect mayflies and crayfish.
The alleged trade-off between economic well-being and environmentalism is already a talking point in the mountaintop removal debate. A bumper sticker currently making rounds in the region reads: "Save a Coal Miner, Kill a Tree Hugger."
Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice and Aaron Isherwood of the Sierra Club, attorneys who work on mountaintop removal for their groups, say the strategy discussions went differently. They said they do not oppose using the Endangered Species Act against mountaintop removal mining; they just choose not to use it themselves because they think it is neither the most effective strategy nor the one that resonates with the local groups they represent.
"If you talk to the people in the region about what mountaintop removal has done to the places where they grew up, the damage it has done to the people who live there now ... those are the things that they care about most," Mulhern said.
SELC's Murray said the same measures that safeguard Appalachia's species -- such as water pollution controls and forest protections -- are essential to protecting its people.
But Mulhern said mining companies are constantly seeking to turn that argument on its head. "If you look at the comments of the mining companies, they're trying to say that it's all about 'mayflies versus jobs,'" she said. "Whatever environmental groups say, mining companies will try to say the impacts of mountaintop removal aren't that significant. I think that they've been pretty unsuccessful in making that argument to anyone but themselves."
For now, the groups plan to continue pressing the Obama administration to deem mountaintop removal mining a violation of the Clean Water Act, said the Sierra Club's Isherwood. "I think we need to enforce the Endangered Species Act, but not every mountaintop removal mine is going to affect a threatened or endangered species," he said. "What we really need is for the Obama administration to enforce the Clean Water Act and end mountaintop removing mining."
Local environmentalists were dubious about the endangered species angle, but as more mountains are dynamited and the Obama administration deliberates, all options are still on the table, said Jim Sconyers, chairman of the West Virginia Sierra Club. He was not present at the strategy discussions where the debates allegedly took place.
"We would probably think you'd be barking up the wrong tree if you came over and wanted us to talk about endangered species," Sconyers said. "But who knows? Maybe someday we will."
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500