A federal district judge in Southwest Virginia, in what could prove a major challenge to new federal strip mining regulations, has issued a temporary injunction barring enforcement of the rules anywhere in the state.
U.S. District Judge Glen Williams said the rules, which require coal companies to restore mined land to its original contours, effectively prohibit strip mining in the steep-sloped hills and hollows of Southwest Virginia where 95 per cent of Virginia's coal reserves are located.
Such a prohibition, he said, may amount to the taking of property without just compenstion and thus violate the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Williams said provisions of the new regulations permitting federal inspectors to shut down a mine without a hearing may also violate constitutional guarantees to due process.
He set a hearing in Big Stone Gap March 26 for arguments on a permanent injunction in the case, which was brought by the Virginia Surface Mining and Reclamation Association on behalf of its 63 member coal companies.
Williams noted evidence that 26 Virginia coal companies have gone out of business since passage of the strip mining law in 1977 and some 500 miners have lost their jobs. He cited the loss of income in Buchanan County, Va., alone where 63 per cent of the county's total income comes from coal mining.
Virginia strip miners, he said, may experience up to 73 percent increase in operational costs to comply with the law, and those increases, the judge said, can make it commercially impracticable if not impossible to continue operations.
Williams said the regulations require strip mined land "to be restored to its original contours... despite the fact that in many cases the land is more useful as flat land...
"The undisputed evidence," he said, "shows that in many of the counties in western Virginia, flat land is practically nonexistent and needed for commercial, residential and public uses."
Government attorneys argued that the new rules prevent harm to the public from blasting, flooding and pollution. But Williams wrote that blasting damages are recoverable through other laws and "plaintiffs presented to the court documentary and expert testimony which, to say the least, renders it doubtful or inconclusive that strip mining causes flooding or pollution."
The surface mining regulations, fruit of years of controversy and debate in both houses of Congress, were signed into law by President Carter in August 1977.