Appeal panel hears Spruce Mine case today

Debbie RolenStaff Writer

March 14, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal appellate panel is set to hear oral arguments Thursday on the Environmental Protection Agency’s retroactive veto of water-pollution permits for one of West Virginia’s largest mountaintop removal mines — a case the coal industry says has implications for all manner of economic development.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has scheduled 15 minutes for each side, starting at 9:30 a.m.

In 2011, the EPA revoked a permit that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had issued four years earlier to St. Louis-based Arch Coal for its 2,300-acre Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County.

The EPA said destructive and unsustainable mining practices would cause irreparable environmental damage and threaten the health of residents nearby, a ruling cheered by environmental activists.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson later ruled the corps’ permit had been thoroughly reviewed and properly issued, and that EPA had overstepped its legal authority to intervene.

Mountaintop removal is a highly efficient but destructive form of strip mining that blasts apart mountain ridge tops to expose multiple coal seams. The resulting rock and debris is dumped in streams, creating so-called valley fills. Spruce No. 1 would have buried nearly 7 miles of streams.

It was only the 13th time since 1972 that the EPA had used the veto authority and the first time it had acted on a previously permitted mine. EPA said it reserves the power for rare and unacceptable cases, but Jackson declared the action “incorrect and unreasonable.”

Industry, coalfields politicians and state regulators want the ruling upheld.

Coal companies and others argue that EPA’s maneuver effectively prevents permits from ever being considered final, and that could have a chilling effect on new construction and economic development nationwide.