Federal court backs EPA regulation of mountaintop removal
April 23, 2013, 2:28 p.m.
WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court unanimously backed the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate a controversial form of coal mining called mountaintop removal, overturning a lower court decision that barred the agency from stopping a large coal mine in West Virginia.
The ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to set off considerable political backlash from industry, some utilities and their congressional allies who have long contended that the EPA’s regulatory efforts are killing the coal sector.
In the opinion, Judge Karen Henderson wrote that the Clean Water Act “does indeed clearly and unambiguously give EPA the power to act” to halt the West Virginia Spruce Mine No. 1 project, the biggest mountaintop removal mine ever planned in the state. However, the appeals court did not rule on another key question, whether the EPA’s action was “arbitrary and capricious.” It instructed the district court to consider the second question, meaning that the lawsuit could continue indefinitely.
Mountaintop mining involves slicing away a mountain through controlled explosions in order to expose coal seams. The dispute before the federal appeals court centered on the EPA’s decision to rescind a permit that Arch Coal needed to build Spruce Mine No. 1. Under the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers issues permits to mining companies so that they can dispose of millions of tons of rubble left over from blasting mountaintops by depositing it in nearby ravines, in the process burying streams. Already, mountaintop mining has buried thousands of miles of streams in Appalachia.
In 2011, the EPA revoked the Clean Water Act permit the Corps of Engineers had issued to the Spruce Mine, after determining that the proposed dumping of mine waste “would have unacceptable adverse environmental effects and