Federal regulators have given final approval to the largest mountaintop removal-mining permit in West Virginia history.Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County.The move comes nearly eight years after a federal judge blocked the original permit, and as environmental groups and industry officials are waiting for two other major court rulings on mountaintop removal.Corps officials approved a “dredge-and-fill” permit that allows the Spruce Mine to bury nearly seven miles of streams in the Pigeonroost Hollow area of Logan County, near Blair.
Col. Dana R. Hurst, the corps district engineer in Huntington, approved the permit in a 41-page record of decision signed Jan. 22.Arch Coal has scaled back the operation, from the 3,113 acres originally approved to 2,278 acres, according to corps permit documents and state Department of Environmental Protection records.It would likely still rank as the largest permit ever issued in West Virginia, said DEP spokeswoman Jessica Greathouse. One other Arch Coal permit, for its Hobet 21 Westridge Mine, is slightly larger, but only because of area that was added after the original operation was approved, Greathouse said.The original Spruce Mine permit would have buried more than 10 miles of streams, and mined nearly 55 million tons of coal.In a detailed mine study finalized in September, the corps said the new version reduces environmental impacts, while allowing Arch Coal to reach about 75 percent of its coal reserves.“The applicant made additional modifications to further avoid and minimize impacts to the environment, while satisfactorily meeting the purpose and need for the project,” the permit study said.Still, the mine’s final approval is likely to stir controversy, and probably bring more court action to try to stop it.Joe Lovett, a lawyer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said that those groups are “considering all of their options and may challenge it in court.”Just a week before the permit was approved, the wife of one of the Spruce Mine’s most vocal opponents died.Sible Rose Wheatley Weekley, 62, of Blair, died on Jan. 15. She and her husband, James Weekley, lived along Pigeonroost Branch and filed the original lawsuit that helped launch the fight against mountaintop removal.Kim Link, a media spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Arch Coal, did not return a phone call Monday.
As originally proposed, the Spruce Mine would have extended Arch subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc.’s Dal-Tex complex east across W.Va. 17 into Pigeonroost Hollow. In 1998, that proposal was at the heart of the first in a series of federal court lawsuits that sought to curb mountaintop removal mining.In March 1999, then-Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II issued a preliminary injunction blocking the corps’ permit for the mine. Haden said that the company — and the agency — had illegally “segmented” the operation into smaller phases to avoid doing a lengthy study called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS.Haden issued two other, broader rulings to more strictly regulate mountaintop removal, but both were overturned by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.Haden’s ruling to block the Spruce Mine also led to a series of protests by the United Mine Workers, whose members hoped to continue their jobs at Dal-Tex onto the new permit.Now, Arch Coal has transferred the mine to its Mingo Logan Coal Co. subsidiary and plans to operate with non-union workers, said UMW spokesman Phil Smith.The Spruce Mine is perhaps the only mountaintop removal mine to undergo an EIS for its Clean Water Act permit from the corps.
Both sides of the mountaintop removal controversy are waiting for a ruling from U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in Huntington in a case that seeks to force all mines to have an EIS before they are approved.Also, U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin is considering whether to reopen a separate case over the way the corps approves most mines through a streamlined permit process.Historically, the corps has almost always allowed mine operators to use this streamlined process to obtain “nationwide” or “regional” permit approvals that involve less rigorous regulatory review.Goodwin had blocked that maneuver by the corps, but the 4th Circuit overturned his ruling. Now, lawyers for environmental groups want to reopen that case on different grounds.When the corps has forced operators to obtain more detailed “individual permits,” the agency has generally concluded that the mining would cause only minor environmental damage, a move that let companies avoid conducting an EIS before mining. Chambers has been asked to stop that process, forcing an EIS to be performed on all mines.