Conservation groups sue Forest Service for failing to protect Cherry River’s candy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. Forest Service faces a lawsuit for allegedly failing to protect streams in the Cherry River watershed from the harmful effects of coal hauling in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

Candy darter Credit: NPS

Conservation groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday saying the coal hauling is putting the endangered candy darter at risk as well as the nearby habitat for other endangered species.

Advocates claim the Forest Service allowed a private coal company to haul oversized loads of coal and coal mining equipment, including explosives, on gravel roads in the watershed, which has led to harmful pollutants enter the rivers.

Meg Townsend, senior freshwater species attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said this is harming the candy darter.

“I’m appalled by the Forest Service’s blatant disregard for the candy darter and the Cherry River watershed,” Townsend said in a statement. “These beautiful little fish are on the knife’s edge of extinction, and they can’t withstand any more harm from the coal industry.”

The lawsuit claims the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by allowing the activities without ensuring they won’t harm endangered species.

The Forest Service issued a permit in 2021 allowing the South Fork Coal Co. to haul oversized coal loads and conduct extensive road clearing and construction, which includes tree cutting, regrading and widening the road, and removing and replacing culverts.

The company has been cited several times since then for violations related to spreading raw coal on the roadway.

“The Forest Service has permitted these harmful activities without considering that they might destroy the Cherry River watershed forever,” said Olivia Miller, program director of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, in a statement.

Willie Dodson, Central Appalachian field coordinator with Appalachian Voices, and Alex Cole, senior organizing representative at Sierra Club, also issued statements addressing the lawsuit.

“Communities all along the Cherry River, and the Gauley further downstream, depend on clean water. The Forest Service needs to correct its mistake in letting this coal company run roughshod over the watershed for the sake of wildlife and people alike,” Dodson said.

“The South Fork Coal Company should never have been permitted by the Forest Service to haul coal, supplies, and heavy equipment through the vulnerable Cherry River watershed, home of rare high elevation red spruce forest and precious, endangered species like the candy darter,” Cole said. “Through multiple violations, South Fork has established a track record of environmental harm, and the Forest Service must remedy their mistake by revoking the company’s permit as soon as possible.”

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