The largest mountaintop removal coal mine in state history will receive final approval from federal regulators next week, setting the next stage in a court battle over the project.U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said Friday they will issue a "dredge and fill" Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal Inc.'s Spruce No. 1 Mine.Michael Gheen, regulatory chief for the Corps district office in Huntington, on Thursday gave lawyers for the opposition a five-day notice that the permit will be issued.Under a proposed lawsuit settlement, Gheen was required to give the notice so that environmental lawyer Joe Lovett can fight the permit.The lawsuit settlement requires regulators to conduct more thorough environmental impact studies.Michael McCabe, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, exempted Arch Coal's proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine from the settlement.Arch's Hobet Mining Inc. subsidiary wants to strip 3,100 acres of hills and hollows near historic Blair Mountain in Logan County. The 5-square-mile project is the largest strip mine permit in state history.Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden has scheduled a hearing for 4 p.m. Thursday in Charleston to hear environmental groups' challenge to the permit.
In his Thursday letter to Lovett, Gheen said he has determined that the Hobet mine was eligible to be authorized under a "nationwide" permit, which requires less regulatory scrutiny than a site-specific approval.Under the Clean Water Act, national permits are to be used only for activities which have minimal adverse cumulative environmental impacts.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a Jan. 7 letter to Gheen, stopped short of objecting to the issuance of the Hobet permit under a nationwide permit program.David Densmore, supervisor of the Service's regional office, noted that valley fills at the mine will bury nearly 3 miles of streams.Hobet Mining plans several projects to mitigate for this damage, Densmore wrote, but "the Service remains concerned that surface mining on this scale may not meet the minimal impacts requirement of the law and that project impacts on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are not being adequately compensated.""Notwithstanding these concerns, however, we recognize that we are going through a period of transition in the review and regulation of mountaintop removal and valley filling, and that increased environmental protection and improvements in agency coordination are likely to be realized from this process," he wrote."With this in mind, and with the understanding that future projects of this kind and their compensation requirements will be subject to more careful and coordinated scrutiny, the Service does not object to your proposed authorization of the Spruce No. 1 Mine by nationwide permit."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.