A federal judge on Wednesday temporarily halted permits for the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history.Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II issued a 10-day temporary restraining order which stops Arch Coal Inc. from stripping a 5-square-mile area along Pigeonroost Branch near Blair, Logan County.Haden said the permanent environmental damage from the mining outweighs the short-term economic harm Arch Coal would suffer if mining can't start right away."We all understand ... that when streams are diverted, trees are cut, aquatic life is disturbed, human residents and animal residents are affected, that this is an area where you cannot unring the bell," Haden said in a ruling from the bench.
But Haden also said he wanted to hear evidence and arguments - and make a ruling - quickly on whether or not the mine should be halted for a period longer than his order's 10-day limit.Haden scheduled a hearing on a preliminary injunction, the next step in either stopping or approving the mine, to start at 9 a.m. today in federal court in Charleston."I'll see you here tomorrow morning," Haden told the 15 lawyers who crowded the ample counsel tables in the ceremonial courtroom of the new federal building Wednesday.At issue is a 3,100-acre permit for Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc.The project, in the works for two years, was exempted from a partial lawsuit settlement that will subject mountaintop removal mining permits to much more rigorous environmental review before they are approved.The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents want Haden to force federal and state regulators to perform those same types of studies on the Hobet mining proposal.Joe Lovett, lead lawyer for the environmentalists, told Haden that once the mine is permitted, Hobet Mining will "blast the mountains into oblivion.""The damage to the ecosystem will be total, swift and irreversible," Lovett said.Roger Wolfe, a lawyer for Hobet, argued that the company's immediate plans were only to start work on sediment ponds that would cover 5 to seven acres."There won't be 7 square miles of forest destruction or anything like that in the next 10 days," Wolfe said. "It's not significant impact. It's not irreparable harm."Haden said, "It's obvious that the economic impacts on Hobet are significant and serious. I'll take you at your word that there is a loss of $1 million a month with no action."
But, the judge added that under the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, "While economic concerns are a consideration, the paramount considerations have to do with environmental matters such as water quality."The legal battle over the Hobet mine is a spinoff of a larger and more complex suit, also before Haden, which attempts to seriously curb mountaintop removal mining statewide.In his bench ruling Wednesday, Haden said of that suit, "It is abundantly clear that there are serious legal questions raised by the parties in this case, upon which there is very serious disagreement among [the parties]."As much daylight ... as we can put on these issues, where they can be resolved appropriately in this courtroom, the better off the agencies are and the public is," Haden said. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.