Court Rejects Mining Ruling

Associated Press
Saturday, February 14, 2009

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal appeals court Friday overturned a ruling requiring more extensive environmental reviews of mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining in Appalachia that blasts away whole peaks.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to issue Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal coal mines without more extensive reviews.

The ruling is a blow to environmentalists and coalfield neighbors who oppose the highly efficient but destructive practice, which exposes thin, shallow coal seams. Rocks, dirt and other debris typically are dumped into valleys containing intermittent streams, which is how clean water rules become involved.

The decision is a big win for mine operators.

Mountaintop permits have slowed to a trickle since March 2007, when the Corps was ordered by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers to rescind several permits. It was Chambers's ruling that the appeals court overturned.

"It's Friday the 13th -- what do you expect?" said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

"We are deeply disappointed," Keating said. Her coalition plans to get together with two other environmental groups involved in the case to determine their next step.

The Corps is reviewing the decision to determine how it affects the agency's process, spokeswoman Peggy Noel said.

West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney praised the decision, saying it brings stability to the industry at a time when it faces sluggish demand because of the weak economy.

"It's so reassuring to have the stability of the appeals court that recognizes the professionalism of the Corps of Engineers," Raney said. "They really protected the jobs of the miners."

Appalachian mining giant Massey Energy also praised the ruling, which directly involved several permits issued for the Richmond-based company's mines.

Massey, the nation's fourth-largest coal producer, and other mine operators have been bracing for the better part of two years for potential production cuts stemming from an inability to get permits.

Coal companies have been cutting production, closing mines and laying off workers across the country amid anemic demand, particularly for utility coal overseas and coking coal used to fire steel mill blast furnaces.

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