A federal judge late Friday blocked the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history for another three weeks.Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II extended a temporary restraining order against Arch Coal Inc.'s proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine for an additional 20 days.Haden halted the 3,100-acre Logan County mine on Feb. 3 for 10 days. Last week, he extended his order through Tuesday. The new order runs through March 5.The judge ruled at the end of the third straight full day of hearings this week, the third week of testimony on whether a longer, preliminary injunction against the mine should be granted.
Haden said he would continue hearings on the preliminary injunction request Thursday. The judge also plans to schedule a tour of the proposed mine site and an active mountaintop removal mine, as well as a flyover of Southern West Virginia mine sites.At the request of Arch Coal lawyer Roger Wolfe, Haden ordered the plaintiffs to post a $5,000 bond. The money would be forfeited to Arch Coal if Haden decides the temporary restraining order wasn't warranted.Joe Lovett, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he thinks his clients will be able to raise the money. Haden told them to post the bond by the middle of next week.The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents challenged state and federal permits for the Arch Coal mine.Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc. wants to expand its Dal-Tex operation and strip a 5-square-mile area along Pigeonroost Branch near the Logan County town of Blair. The proposal would put rock and earth from the mountaintop on long sections of Pigeonroost and other streams.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exempted the mine from a new policy that will subject mountaintop removal permits to much greater scrutiny and environmental study.Lawyers for the environmentalists contend permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Division of Environmental Protection violate the federal Clean Water Act and the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.The Pigeonroost permit has become the focus of a legal and political battle over mountaintop removal that has heated up over the last two years.After Haden decides that permit's fate, the judge still has to hear a bigger, more complex case that alleges the state DEP has established a "pattern and practice" of granting mountaintop removal permits that don't comply with federal laws.During Friday's hearing, Dal-Tex General Manager Mark White testified that delays in the permitting of his mine expansion are costing Arch Coal $1 million a month.White said that the company has already laid off 13 preparation plant employees and could put more out of work if the new permit isn't granted by June or July.
"We will not have anyplace to dig without the pending permit," White said. "I don't know what upper management will do. They could pull the plug or hang in there." To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.