EPA moves to stop W.Va. coal mine that was issued federal permit

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a rare step against a planned "mountaintop" coal mine in West Virginia on Friday: proposing to block the mine, despite the fact that it has a federal permit.

The move is one of the most aggressive to come out of the Obama administration's reexamination of mountaintop mining, where peaks are scraped and blasted away to reach coal seams inside. The EPA has reviewed dozens of permits and approved one large mine in January after environmental improvements were promised.

But, in this case, the agency is threatening to stop the Spruce Number One mine in Logan County, W.Va., entirely, or at least stop it from using "valley fills," depositing excess rock and rubble in nearby streams. Under the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA has the power to veto projects that would cause an "unacceptable adverse impact," but it has used that power only 12 times since 1972. It has never used the power in a case such as this, where the mine has a permit.

The EPA will take public comments on the proposal for 60 days and hold a hearing on the proposal in West Virginia.

The EPA says the Spruce Number One mine would bury about seven miles of streams. As toxic chemicals flow downstream from the mine rubble, the agency said, they could harm aquatic life, including one of the world's richest concentrations of salamanders.

The mine was issued a federal permit in 2007, but lawsuits from environmental groups delayed major mining. After the Obama White House raised questions about the mine's environmental consequences last year, the EPA began negotiations with Arch Coal, the mine's St. Louis-based parent company.

The EPA said Friday that those negotiations had failed.

"Coal, and coal mining, is part of our nation's energy future, and for that reason EPA has made repeated efforts to foster dialogue and find a responsible path forward," Shawn Garvin, the EPA's regional administrator for the mid-Atlantic, said in a news release. "But we must prevent the significant and irreversible damage that comes from mining pollution -- and the damage from this project would be irreversible."

Arch Coal said in a statement that the company is disappointed with the decision, and it intends "to vigorously defend the Spruce permit by all legal means."

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