Federal regulators have suspended four mountaintop removal mining permits, saying they need to further study a lawsuit that alleges the permits are illegal.Lawyers for the federal Army Corps of Engineers announced the action Thursday during a telephone hearing held by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in Huntington, lawyers in the case said.All four permits are for new or expanded mines proposed by Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy.A trial in the lawsuit, which raises broad issues about mountaintop removal, had been scheduled to start on June 20.The corps’ surprise permit suspensions block further operations at the mines, and call into question plans for other large surface mines to expand.“We are very glad to see that destructive mining practices at these mines will stop at least for now,” said Vivian Stockman, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, one of the groups that brought the suit.“But it is unfortunate to see that a flawed process that the corps has used to approve these mines has shown to be so ineffective,” Stockman said. “By allowing mining at the wrong sites and violating the law, jobs could be lost and economies could be hurt by the blatant disregard of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
Corps officials could not be reached for comment Thursday evening. Massey Energy has a corporate policy to not respond to questions from The Charleston Gazette.In mountaintop removal, coal companies use explosives to blast apart entire hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves.Huge shovels and trucks move in to haul away the coal. Leftover rock and dirt — the stuff that used to be the mountain — is shoved into nearby valleys, burying streams.Since 1999, two different federal judges in West Virginia have issued rulings to curb or more strictly regulate mountaintop removal. Both have been overruled by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
In February, two West Virginia judges who sit on the 4th Circuit, Robert B. King and M. Blane Michael, issued a dissent that lamented mining damage to “the oldest mountain chain in the world” and “one of the nation’s richest, most diverse and most delicate ecosystems.”Now, two cases over mountaintop removal are again being heard in U.S. District Court in Southern West Virginia.In one case that is back before U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin, environmental groups want to block the corps from approving new mining operations through a streamlined permitting process.In the other, citizen groups want Chambers to force the corps to do more detailed studies before it approves new mines through the agency’s more traditional Clean Water Act permit review.
Previously, the suit specifically targeted the Massey Republic Mine near Cabin Creek, along with the company’s Black Castle and Camp Branch mines, both in Logan County.Thursday’s hearing was scheduled when environmental group lawyers sought a new court order to temporarily block another Massey mine, proposed by the company’s Laxare Inc. subsidiary.At the hearing, corps lawyer Ruth Ann Storey announced that the agency was suspending all four challenged permits, said Joe Lovett, a lawyer for the environmental groups.Lovett said the corps is expected to send suspension letters to the companies on Monday. He said that Storey said the actions were being taken “to consider issues raised in the complaint.”In the trial scheduled for later this month, environmental groups planned to offer a broad range of new expert testimony about mountaintop removal’s effects on forests and streams.Chambers has scheduled a status conference for Wednesday to discuss how the case should proceed.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. is reporting on the coal industry with support from a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.