Court Reverses E.P.A. On Big Mining Project

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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 agency said at the time it was using its authority under the Clean Water Act to rescind a legally issued permit, an action it had taken only twice in 40 years and never for a coal mine.

Judge Jackson said the action was "a stunning power for an agency to arrogate to itself" that the law did not support.

She said that the agency had resorted to "magical thinking" to justify its action revoking the permit. "Poof!" she wrote.

The agency said that it was reviewing the decision and that the ruling would "not affect the E.P.A.'s commitment to protect the health of Appalachian communities who depend on clean water."

Arch Coal welcomed the decision. "We're pleased the district court has ruled in our favor, confirming that our Spruce No. 1 permit remains valid," said Kim Link, a company spokeswoman.

In revoking the permit, the agency said that the project would have involved dynamiting the tops off mountains to get at coal deposits. The resulting rubble would be dumped in nearby valleys as well as in the Pigeonroost Branch, the Oldhouse Branch and their tributaries.

"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," a group of environmental advocates, including the Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said in a statement.

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, heartily endorsed the court's ruling.

"I always knew that the E.P.A.'s decision to retroactively veto a coal mining permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County was fundamentally wrong and an unprecedented act by the federal government."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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