The U.S. Ccourt of Appeals in what was considered a striking victory for the coal industry, told the Secretary of Interior Thursday that he had no authority to issue strict regulations that would require strip-mining operators to provide detailed information to the government about their work.
In a 2-1 decision, the court said the controversial Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act did not give the secretary the power to add new, more specific regulations to supplement the general requirements of the 1977 Act itself.
The court's decision seemed to parallel an unsuccessful effort by the Senate Energy Committee, which had attempted last year to severely limit the secretary's authority to issue regulations expanding the Act's requirements. That legislative effort eventually died in the House, but the court decision yesterday appeared to take its place for now.
In an opinion for the majority, Judge Edward Tamm said that Congress intended to give the states primary regulatory and decision-making authority in connection with the Act. The secretary's job was an "oversight role to ensure that the states provide some minimal level of regulation and control," Tamm wrote in his opinion.
"From there, we conclude that the Act itself defines the minimum information" that strip-mining operators must include in permit applications and that the "secretary's authority in this area is limited to determining whether the states have satisfied that minimum," Tamm wrote.
As a result, Tamm said, the court held that the secretary "lacks power to demand that states require more information from applicants than the Act itself spells out."
To allow the secretary to expand on the Act as he saw fit through regulations would "take away the very discretion Congress sought to vest in the states," Tamm said.
The appeals court decision reversed an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Flannery who said the secretary had acted within his power.The appeals court decision sends back to the Interior secretary key provisions of the Act which require the strip-mining operators to provide detailed information about proposed strip-mining activities before a permit can be issued.