Court Blocks Permitting Process for Mountaintop Removal Mining

A federal judge yesterday issued an injunction blocking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from authorizing new mountaintop removal mining operations through its streamlined Nationwide Permit procedure.

The decision handed down by the court applies to the Southern District of West Virginia, but involves a nationwide permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act, which gave coal mining operations, such as mountaintop removal mines, the ability to dump their waste in streams and other water bodies. Mountaintop removal mining produces enormous quantities of waste that is commonly disposed of in adjacent valleys and streams.

The court found that the Corps had acted unreasonably in two main respects. First, it ignored the past impacts of similar mining in deciding not to prepare an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Second, the Corps assumed–without justification–that the impacts to streams and other water bodies would be adequately offset by “mitigation” measures, such as building man-made drainage channels constructed to replace destroyed natural streams. However, the court found that the Corps did not have an adequate plan to monitor mitigation efforts or require corrective action, which is necessary considering that mitigation commonly fails to replace the lost resources.

“The court’s decision is a victory for our irreplaceable waterways. A nationwide permit to dump coal mine waste into our waters would have been a recipe for environmental disaster,” said Jon Devine, Senior Attorney for NRDC. “This important win will help protect Appalachian mountains and streams from harmful mining practices.”

"Mitigation is the centerpiece of the Corps’ claim that mountaintop removal and valley fills have cumulatively insignificant environmental effects,” said Jim Hecker, Environmental Enforcement Director for Public Justice. “The Corps claims that it can achieve 100% success in mitigating the burial of streams by creating new streams elsewhere. The court correctly found that this claim is an ‘unsupported belief’ and a ‘mere promise’ that has no factual or scientific basis. In two recent letters objecting to similar Corps permits, EPA told the Corps the same thing."

“Judge Goodwin has reaffirmed that science and law must take precedence over dirty coal profits,” said Vernon Haltom, co-director at Coal River Mountain Watch. “Coal companies have assaulted our homes, communities, mountains, and life-giving water with impunity for far too long. We hope the Manchin administration will also now begin to enforce the laws that are intended to protect our communities and resources."

Today’s ruling is the latest setback for mountaintop removal coal mining. Last week, EPA announced that it is taking a close look at whether individual mountaintop removal mining permits in Appalachia are supported by the science, and Senators Alexander and Cardin introduced a bill to curb dumping mountaintop removal coal mining waste in streams.

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