Environmental groups are seeking a court order that would force federal regulators to answer a demand that they stop letting state officials enforce federal clean-water rules in Kentucky and West Virginia, the groups announced Wednesday.
Several groups argue the two states have done a poor job enforcing controls on pollution draining from surface coal mines, resulting in widespread damage to streams and rivers.
Regulators in Kentucky, West Virginia and other states have authority to enforce federal rules on runoff from mines, with oversight from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Sierra Club and other groups asked the EPA several years ago to rescind Kentucky and West Virginia's authority over the discharge program. The EPA failed to respond to those requests as required, according to a news release issued Wednesday by the environmental groups.
The groups said they had filed lawsuits in federal court in Kentucky and West Virginia seeking to compel answers from the EPA.
State regulators dispute claims that they've failed to protect water quality.
"Although we have not seen the actual documents, we believe we are implementing the delegated programs appropriately and in accordance with state and federal requirements," said Dick Brown, spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
The groups suing in West Virginia are the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Sierra Club.
Environmental groups asked the EPA to rescind West Virginia's enforcement of clean-water rules in 2009 and followed with a similar request covering Kentucky in 2010.
The groups contend that Kentucky has fallen short several ways, including not having enough employees to adequately police surface mining; failing to set proper limits on selenium, iron and other pollutants; and improperly issuing mining permits under rules that mean less scrutiny on the front end.
When the groups asked the EPA to strip Kentucky's enforcement rights, they cited the state's own findings from 2008 that more than 2,400 miles of streams and rivers in the Upper Cumberland, Upper Kentucky and Big Sandy watersheds were impaired, with coal mining as the suspected source.
The groups argue the damage is far more widespread, however.
"The people and communities of Kentucky and West Virginia deserve better than the legacy left us by uncontrolled, runaway coal mining; a broken economy; and a polluted environment," Mary Love, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said in a news release.
Love mentioned the controversy over Frasure Creek Mining.
Citizens groups first charged in 2010 that the company had submitted a raft of reports to the state with false information on discharges from its mines in Eastern Kentucky and that state regulators had failed to catch the problem.
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip J. Shepherd said in a court ruling last year that the company had systematically subverted the law and that the state didn't have enough regulators or money to properly monitor companies that routinely violated their duty to check for pollution and report violations to the state.
The state adopted new permit rules last year designed to limit pollution.
State regulators said the EPA OK'd the rules, which they saw as significant because the agency had objected earlier to a number of state decisions to issue permits under the old rules.
Environmental groups argue the problems they cited in 2010 remain largely uncorrected.