The latest courtroom battle to curb mountaintop removal coal mining is starting to heat up.On Friday, a federal judge in Huntington blocked expansion of a Massey Energy mine near the intersection of Kanawha, Fayette and Raleigh counties.U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers scheduled a follow-up hearing next week in Huntington.Chambers also set a hearing for early April to consider a request for a broader court order to block permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Over the last seven years, two federal judges in West Virginia have issued rulings to more tightly regulate mountaintop removal.Those rulings, by the late Judge Charles H. Haden II and Judge Joseph R. Goodwin, were both overturned by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.One of those cases is now back before Goodwin. Environmental group lawyers have asked the judge to rule on several issues that were not considered in his previous decision or in the 4th Circuit appeal.
And last month, two West Virginia judges who served on the 4th Circuit issued a harsh dissent that supports Goodwin’s original ruling.“The Appalachian mountains, the oldest mountain chain in the world, are one of the nation’s richest, most diverse and most delicate ecosystems, an ecosystem that mountaintop coal mining authorized by the corps’ general permit may irrevocably damage,” Judges Robert B. King and M. Blane Michael said in their dissent.Chambers, a former House Speaker who was a strong environmental advocate in the Legislature, had also issued rulings to require more strict regulation of mining’s impact on water quality.
In the current case, Chambers is being asked to force the Corps of Engineers to conduct broad environmental impact studies on every application for a new mountaintop removal permit.Lawyers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups specifically targeted permits for three Massey Energy operations based in Boone, Kanawha and Logan counties.The case is a follow-up to Goodwin’s ruling to block the corps from reviewing valley fill proposals through a streamlined “general permit” process.In the new case, the environmentalists argue that the corps was wrong to approve mining operations through more detailed “individual permit” reviews because those reviews did not include a study called an Environmental Impact Statement.“The mining and valley fills at these three mines collectively will destroy over 2,000 acres of land and smother over seven miles of streams,” the lawyers said in the court papers. “Yet, the corps has neglected to examine in a meaningful way the inevitable damage that will be caused by these mines, or to develop any realistic plan for mitigating that damage.”
On Thursday, environmental group lawyers Joe Lovett and Jennifer Chavez asked Chambers for a temporary restraining order to block “destructive timbering, clearing, grubbing (removing trees by their roots), sediment pond construction and/or permanent valley filling activities” at the three operations.Massey agreed to not undertake those activities at its Black Castle Mine in Boone County and its Camp Branch operation in Logan County, but refused to halt work at its Republic No. 2 Mine near the Kanawha-Fayette-Raleigh line.After a telephone hearing Friday morning, Chambers issued a temporary restraining order blocking such work at a new valley fill at the Republic mine.Chambers said his order would extend through Wednesday, and scheduled a follow-up hearing for Tuesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Huntington.A broader hearing on a longer court injunction was scheduled to begin April 4, Chambers said in an order entered Friday afternoon.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.