A court victory for the evils of mountaintop removal coal mining: Arch Coal Spruce No. 1 mine permit reinstated

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Photo: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition; Earthjustice website

Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy:  “We are deeply disappointed and concerned about the effect of today’s court ruling because mountaintop removal mining has already caused widespread and extreme destruction to the mountains, waters, and communities of Appalachia. The Spruce No. 1 Mine permit, in particular, was one of the largest mountaintop removal permits ever proposed in Appalachia…. We need EPA to be able to fully protect our waters.” We would add: to end this tangle of permitting decisions and litigation, we believe correct public policy would be to ban mountaintop removal mining outright.


The New York Times reported (“Court Reverses E.P.A. on Big Mining Project”):

WASHINGTON — In a sharp rebuke, a federal judge on Friday reversed a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke a critical permit for one of the nation’s largest mountaintop removal mining projects.

The United States District Court judge, Amy Berman Jackson, said that the E.P.A.’s unilateral decision in January 2011 to rescind the waste disposal permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, W.Va., exceeded the agency’s authority and violated federal law. She declared that the permit was now valid, paving the way for a mining project covering 2,278 acres to go forward.

In taking the rare step of revoking the permit, granted in 2007 by the Bush administration, the E.P.A. said that mining would have done unacceptable damage to rivers, wildlife and communities. The mine, owned by Arch Coal of St. Louis, would have buried hundreds of miles of streams under tons of residue. …

The Washington Post/Associated Press reported (“Federal judge: EPA overstepped authority revoking permits for Arch Coal surface mine in W.Va.”):

… The EPA in January 2011 used its veto power for only the 13th time since 1972 to overturn a permit the corps had issued under the federal Clean Water Act. It was the first time the EPA had acted on a previously permitted mine.

The agency said at the time it reserves that power “for only unacceptable cases.” …

“The Spruce Mine is one of the most ecologically destructive mining projects in Appalachia,” said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s inconceivable that EPA does not have the obligation to protect the region’s water quality from such a massive project.”

Journalist and author Jeff Biggers at Huffington Post wrote (“Spruce Mine Reversal Signals Mountaintop Removal Permits Are Not Slowing to a Trickle”):

In an alarming rebuke to fledgling EPA efforts to regulate devastating mountaintop removal mining operations today, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the Obama administration overstepped its authority in revoking a permit last year for the largest proposed strip-mining operation in central Appalachia.

Despite growing a health and human rights crisis, the troubling judicial move comes on the heels of the coal mining industry’s spring ritual of EPA bashing, including a recent pillory of EPA administration chief Lisa Jackson by big coal-booster US Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), and the insidiously untrue mantra that mountaintop removal permits “have slowed to a trickle.”

Far from a trickle, according to the EPA “110 individual and general mining permits have been issued by the Corps of Engineers since the Obama administration began under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.” In a follow up email, EPA spokesperson Betsaida Alcantara noted, “All of the permits are for surface coal mining activities impacting streams, wetlands, and other waterbodies. The activities include valley fills, roads, coal waste impoundments, and other discharges associated with surface coal mining.” …

“Our mountains are still being destroyed at an alarming rate, the coal is continuing to flow out of our hollers,” said Teri Blanton with the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “Unfortunately the pollution from the mining sites with valley fills from decades back is still polluting the waterways. Heavy metals at toxic levels fill the streams that make up our rivers, where we draw our drinking water.”

The green valley to the right was the site of the proposed Spruce No. 1 mine. (Vivian Stockman of OVEC. Flyover courtesy of SouthWings. From the Earthjustic website)

Statement from the environmental and community groups who were granted amicus curiae status by the court—Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, represented by attorneys at Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates:

“It is a sad day not only for the people who live near mountains and streams threatened by mountaintop removal coal mining, but for all Americans who understand the need to protect our waterways, and the health of communities that depend on them. We are deeply disappointed and concerned about the effect of today’s court ruling because mountaintop removal mining has already caused widespread and extreme destruction to the mountains, waters, and communities of Appalachia. The Spruce No. 1 Mine permit, in particular, was one of the largest mountaintop removal permits ever proposed in Appalachia, and it is located in an area of West Virginia that has already been devastated by several large mountaintop removal mines.

“We need EPA to be able to fully protect our waters. This egregiously harmful coal mining practice, which decimates mountains and buries streams with mining waste, is linked to grave health threats for families and communities across the region. Waters are being buried and contaminated at unprecedented rates in Appalachia, and numerous scientific studies show that the people in this region are suffering greatly. As EPA appropriately found, the Spruce No. 1 Mine would cause unacceptable harm to waters of the United States, and it should not be allowed to go forward.

“People across Appalachia are struggling to stop the permanent destruction of their treasured waters and communities. We urge the EPA to continue exercising its full authority under the law to protect these iconic landscapes and waters.

“Congress passed the Clean Water Act to protect Americans from the very circumstances that mountaintop removal coal mining is now imposing on Appalachian families. The 40-year-old Clean Water Act makes it clear that EPA has broad legal authority to protect our waters and communities’ clean water—and it is essential for EPA to do so before our waterways are gone for good.

“We urge the EPA to appeal today’s ruling and continue to exercise its full authority under the Clean Water Act to protect waterways and communities. The Army Corps should also exercise its authority to recognize the clear science and revoke or suspend the permit. Severe harm would occur if the company is allowed to dump mining waste. Our groups are committed to fighting for clean water and justice in Appalachia until the people in Appalachia get the protections we so deserve.”

From Earthjustice action alert on more than 100 pending mountaintop removal permits:

Coal companies and their lobbyists are pushing for more than 100 new mountaintop removal mining permits, seeking permission to blow more mountains up and destroy more mountain streams in even more communities. When so many local communities are facing the same level of devastation, one permit denied is just not enough.

If the Obama administration issues more unlawful and harmful permits, violating the very purpose of the Clean Water Act to protect the integrity of our nation’s waters, coal companies could fill over 300 more valleys, level over 30,000 more mountain acres, destroy over 100 miles of streams, and pollute many more local waterways. The stakes could not be higher.

Appalachian Community Health Emergency Kick Starts Mountaintop Removal Campaign in Washington, D.C.

Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, by Jeff Biggers

Earlier posts:

EPA review of mountaintop removal permits is not a job-killing ‘permitorium’:
pushing back at a House Oversight hearing

Study showing higher birth defect rates adds another note of urgency to banning mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia

“The Last Mountain” – great documentary on mountaintop removal coal mining

Mountaintop removal rally outside EPA headquarters excoriates ‘King Coal’ Congress members

From the top of Blair Mountain: “It’s time to annihilate mountaintop removal”

Hansen joins Appalachia Rising mountaintop removal coal protest, 100 arrested at White House

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