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Judge voids streamlined permits




CHARLESTON, W.Va.

A federal judge on Tuesday voided a streamlined permitting process for companies to fill valleys with materials left over from mountaintop removal mining.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin’s ruling bars mine operators from using southern West Virginia valley fills authorized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under a nationwide permit issued in 2007. Goodwin said the permit violates the Clean Water Act and other federal laws.

The ruling likewise voids the permit itself and bars the corps from issuing a new one without changing the process to comply with the act.

Goodwin’s decision applies only to West Virginia and covers only the nationwide permit, which is less common in the state, where mines typically rely on individual permits for valley fills.

Environmentalists praised the decision, calling it a key victory in the fight to end mountaintop removal mining. The efficient, but destructive practice uses heavy equipment and explosives to expose multiple coal seams and dump tons of rock, dirt and other material atop streams in mountain valleys.

“It’s tremendous,” said National Resources Defense Council lawyer Jon Devine. “The court is telling the corps that simply hoping that mountain top removal operations won’t cause harm isn’t good enough.”

The decision comes on the heel’s of an Obama administration announcement that it plans more thorough environmental reviews of individual valley fill permits and news Monday that Blair Mountain, site of a historic organized labor battle in 1921, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“I feel like the stars are aligning,” said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, one of three environmental groups that filed the suit. “Seems like there’s a lot of good news swirling around the issue after 10 years.”

To mine operators, however, the ruling comes as a bitter disappointment, especially since the industry just scored a big victory. Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling that the corps’s process of issuing individual valley fill permits violated the Clean Water Act.

“It’s devastating,” West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney said. “Even if there is the simplest of threats to people that have ongoing jobs, that’s just very, very puzzling and very, very distressing in the economic times that we’ve got.”

The actual impact of the latest legal skirmish is uncertain.

Figures provided by the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment show the corps has authorized valley fills at 11 mines under the permit invalidated by Goodwin and at nine others under different nationwide permits.

National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said the trade association is still examining the decision. “But it appears he has enjoined all activity under the permits issued and has placed a cloud over activity in the works.”


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