A court order banning enforcement in Virginia of the landmark 1977 federal strip mining act was overturned yesterday and federal officials said they expect to resume enforcement of the controversial regulations next week.
Enforcement of the measure, backed by environmentalists and fought by coal operators, was suspended in Virginia in February after a preliminary injunction was issued by U.S. District Judge Glen M. Williams in Abingdon, Va.
Yesterday's dissolution of the injunction, by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, marks another stage in a controversy that appears symbolic of the dilemma of a nation seeking to attain both economic and environmental goals.
The federal government contends that the law, which requires strip mining to restore mined land to the way it looked before they dug it up, is necessary to prevent flooding, soil erosion, landslides, water pollution and other environmental damage.
The coal industry in Virginia - the nation's seventh ranking coal producing state - contends that the law already has increased mining costs sharply, but some Virginia coal companies out of business and resulted in losses of hundreds of mining jobs.
In addition, coal company officials have complained of abuses in the way federal officials have enforced the strip mining regulations.
Although yesterday's ruling overturns a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the strip mining act, a request to forbid enforcement permanently is still being considered by Williams.
According to lawyers on both sides, who concluded a three-week hearing on the issue in April, the request for the permanent injunction was argued on constitutional grounds.
D. V. Cooper, executive director of the 200-member Virginia Surface Mining and Reclamation Association, told United Press International last night that, although disappointed, he believed the operators still have "a good chance of winning" the constitutional argument.
In essence, the coal operators are challenging as unconstitutional the power that the act gives the federal government to regulate the use of private land within a state.
The state of Virginia has supported the operators in the challenge. In court testimony Gov. John N. Dalton denounced the act as an attempt "to put the surface mining business out of business in Virginia."
Although the full text of the court of appeals decision was not immediately made public, a lawyer for the operators said he understood the preliminary injunction was dissolved on procedural - rather than constitutional - grounds.
John L. Kilcullen, the lawyer, said he understood that the three-member panel in Richmond indicated that before issuing the injunction, Williams had failed to weigh the possibility that such an action might result in imminent environmental harm.
In a statement issued last night, Paul Reeves, deputy director of the U.S. Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, said "we anticipate that our inspectors will be back in Virginia next week to resume an orderly program of enforcement...."
He added: "We expect to proceed in a spirit of cooperation with the state," and said a meeting with state officials early in the week was anticipated.
The challenge to the strip mine act in Virginia, where one third of coal tonnage is stripped, is one of two major constittutional tests of the measure. The other has been filed in Indiana.
In Virginia, coal operators have complained chiefly about the requirement that mine lands be restored to their approximate original contours after the coal is taken out. Much of the coal potentially available in Virginia through strip mining lies under particularly steep slopes and operators contend that requiring restoration of all these is costly, unwise, often unsafe and sometimes impossible.