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Blair mine permit at heart of new challenge

Environmentalists have turned their legal fight toward stopping the largest mountaintop removal mine permit in West Virginia history.Last week, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents filed an amended lawsuit in federal court to challenge a permit for the Arch Coal Inc. Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County.The groups want to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from issuing a permit for the 3,100-acre mine on Pigeonroost Branch near Blair.The Spruce mine was exempted from a new federal government plan to require extensive environmental studies before mountaintop removal mines are permitted.The corps is expected later this month to authorize valley fills associated with the mine under a less stringent, nationwide general permit.In court papers filed Wednesday, attorney Joe Lovett argues that the corps cannot authorize the mine that way, because nationwide general permits are to be used only for activities that have minimal adverse environmental impacts.Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc. wants the Spruce permit so it can expand its Dal-Tex mining complex. The mine employs about 400 people. The company has already laid off a handful of workers, and threatens more job losses if it doesn't receive the expansion permit quickly. In July 1997, the conservancy filed a lawsuit aimed at curbing mountaintop removal. The suit alleged that the corps and the state Division of Environmental Protection permitted mines that violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.In late December, the conservancy and various federal agencies agreed on a plan that would halt most mountaintop removal permits until a two-year environmental impact study can be completed. Most large mines permitted before that study is completed would be subject to lengthy, though somewhat less rigorous, reviews.The Spruce permit, however, was exempted from those requirements. Michael McCabe is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator who negotiated the deal.In a Dec. 22 letter to citizens who commented on the Spruce permit, McCabe touted an agreement by Arch Coal to "significantly scale back its valley fill plans."
"Specifically, the Hobet Mine permit was reduced from a 13-year operation to a 5-year project; two of the river valleys will not be filled at all and two other fills were substantially reduced in size; and any future work at the site will have to go through a new permit process with a complete environmental assessment and public involvement," McCabe wrote."This is a much better permit for nearby residents and for the environment than originally submitted and helps us move to the next stage of interim permit reforms," McCabe wrote.A proposed permit revision filed Dec. 28 with the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation shows that Hobet Mining will reduce the total size of valley fills on the Spruce permit from 2,900 acres to 1,700 acres, a cut of about 40 percent.The permit revision, however, also makes it clear that Hobet Mining plans to ask for the entire permit at some later date.
"This stage represents an interim configuration that would allow operations to be conducted in a restricted manner," the revision states. "Operations past stage one will depend on future authorizations by appropriate agencies."John Ailes, chief of the DEP mining office, has not yet approved the permit revision. DEP has no plans, however, to allow additional public comment on the permit changes.In its new lawsuit, the conservancy takes aim at the separate permit Hobet Mining needs from the Corps of Engineers.The suit asks Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden to stop the corps from authorizing the Spruce mine under one of its general, nationwide permits.The lawsuit alleges that the corps has never studied whether mountaintop removal mining causes minimal cumulative adverse environmental impacts or not. 
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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