This news story originally provided by The
Charleston Daily Mail
Ruling likely to slow down permits
Mining advocates, foes debate impact of judge's decision
Friday July 09, 2004
A supporter and opponent of mountaintop removal mining agreed a federal
judges ruling would lengthen the time it takes to get permits, but disagreed
on whether the extra time will help or hurt the state.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin ruled that the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers can no longer approve valley fill permits through a
streamlined process. Instead, the federal agency has to subject the proposed
valley fills to individual environmental analyses and public review before
The judge also overturned the corps approval of 11 permits.
Julia Bonds, of the Coal River Mountain Watch, said the ruling gives
environmental and coalfield groups more time to analyze and challenge the
It slows it down. It gives us a chance to find other ways to fight
this, she said.
Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said
Goodwins ruling will immediately block some miners from going to work and
further complicates the process coal companies have to wade through to do
It will undoubtedly create a hardship for the mining companies, the
working miners and their families, he said.
Goodwins ruling did say that valley fills on the 11 permits could continue
if theyre already under construction.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the
affected coal companies are still analyzing how much the ruling will affect
their operations. The industry hopes to avoid any layoffs.
Were going to try to do whatever is possible to avoid that, he said.
While the industry hasnt made a final decision yet, it will probably
appeal the ruling, Raney said. Since the end of last year, rising coal prices
have created significant opportunities for coal operations that can meet the
higher demand for coal, he said.
Consequently, the industrys main concern is to keep the permitting process
as predictable as possible so West Virginia companies can take advantage of
The decision comes at a terrifically bad time, Raney said.
Known as a general or nationwide permit, the streamlined process
allowed the corps to approve mine permits after a partial environmental analysis
and without any public hearing.
Goodwin says in his ruling that the general permit is supposed to be reserved
for activities that the corps can show ahead of time will have minimal
environmental impact. With the mine permits, however, the corps wasnt able to
Consequently, each mine permit must undergo the full environmental analysis
and public review required by the Clean Water Act, he said.
In mountaintop removal mining, a coal company uses explosives to loosen the
surface of the mountain so the rock and dirt can be removed to allow equipment
to reach the underlying coal seams.
While regulations require, with some exceptions, the rock and dirt to be
placed back on the mountain, the process inevitably leaves some excess rock and
dirt. Coal companies dispose of this excess in adjacent valley fills.
Environmental groups have launched several legal challenges to the process.
Their main argument is that covering the heads of valleys with rock and dirt
damages the streams, rivers and lakes that are fed by streams coming out of
those upper valleys.
The groups also contend the blasting, dust and heavy machinery are ruining
the quality of life for coalfield communities.
The practice of mountaintop removal and valley fill mining is destroying
West Virginia, Bonds said. I see the effects of mountaintop removal every
day, and the taxpayers of West Virginia feel it every time we have flooding in
In this challenge, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River
Mountain Watch and Natural Resources Defense Council sued the corps over its
practice of approving the permits through a streamlined process that effectively
keeps the public from finding out what the agency is doing until after the
permits are approved.
Bonds said Goodwins ruling at least gives them a chance to challenge and
perhaps minimize the effects of proposed mining operations before the corps
Were grateful, really, to have an honest judge that goes by the law. We
think that gives us a chance, she said.
The ruling, under the title Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition v. Bulen, is
available on the Web at www.wvsd.uscourts.gov/district/opinions.
[or download the pdf here:
OVEC vs Bulen]
Writer Brian Bowling can be reached at 348-4842.