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Judge cancels mountaintop mine permit court hearing

Environmentalists and a federal agency on Tuesday asked a judge to cancel a hearing on efforts to halt the granting of new mountaintop removal coal mining permits.Lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the U.S. Department of Justice filed a joint motion Tuesday evening asking Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden for the delay.Haden had scheduled a hearing for Thursday to hear arguments on the conservancy's request for summary judgment or a preliminary injunction to stop any new mountaintop removal permits from being granted.In court papers filed Monday, conservancy lawyer Joe Lovett said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed with his assertion that the Corps cannot legally authorize strip mine valley fills under the Clean Water Act's "dredge and fill" permit provisions.Lovett cited depositions of three Corps officials who agreed with the position.In Tuesday's court filings, the conservancy and the Corps said that the agency would not issue any new valley fill permits without giving the environmental group five days notice. The notice would allow Lovett time to go to court to try to stop the permits from being issued.Presumably, the request to delay the hearing means the Corps and the conservancy are continuing talks toward settling the lawsuit.
In mid-July, the conservancy and 10 coalfield residents filed the lawsuit to try to curb mountaintop removal mining.Mountaintop removal blasts off entire hilltops to reach coal seams underneath. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into hollows, burying streams.Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that valley fills violate the Clean Water Act's prohibition against any activity that degrades stream quality.The Corps and the state Division of Environmental Protection are defendants in the lawsuit. Three coal companies, a land company and three industry trade groups have intervened in the lawsuit.Haden has not ruled on the request to postpone Thursday's hearing. 
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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