A lawsuit settlement that could delay mountaintop removal permits for more than two years is good for the coal industry, regulators and environmentalists have told a federal judge.In a joint brief filed with Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden, the federal Justice Department and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy defended the partial settlement of a suit to curb mountaintop removal."The settlement agreement is reasonable, consistent with the [Clean Water Act] and in the public interest," lawyers for federal regulators and environmentalists said in the brief.Haden requested the brief, and responses due over the next few weeks, after coal industry lawyers and the state Division of Environmental Protection objected to the settlement.In July, the Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents sued the DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to try to scale back or stop mountaintop removal mining. In December, the Corps and the environmentalists agreed to settle part of the lawsuit.Under the settlement, mountaintop removal proposals would have to undergo more thorough studies before being permitted.
The government would also conduct a two-year environmental impact statement of mountaintop removal to determine if new regulations are needed.The settlement was signed by the Corps, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Office of Surface Mining, along with environmental group lawyers and DEP.Coal industry groups and several individual coal companies that intervened in the case did not sign it, and plan to try to convince Haden not to allow the settlement to be implemented.In their joint brief, regulators and environmentalists focused on how permits would be issued over the next two years, before the environmental impact study is finished and any major regulatory changes occur. They said that, during this period, agencies would work together to make sure permits are reviewed in a timely manner."Agency experience and expertise will be shared to increase predictability in the permit process, facilitate effective decision making under applicable federal and state regulations and policies, reduce delays, and ensure that environmental impacts are avoided, minimized and mitigated. Thus, the interim approach benefits both the environment and industry, without placing any undue burdens on the mining companies or changing any of the substantive statutory or regulatory requirements that presently apply to mountaintop mining operations," the brief said. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.