WATER POLLUTION:

EPA revokes permit for major mountaintop-removal project

U.S. EPA announced the veto today of a federal permit for one of the largest mountaintop-removal projects ever proposed in Appalachia, a clear signal of the Obama administration's opposition to the controversial coal-mining practice.

The agency's decision to halt development of 2,278-acre Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, W.Va., drew the threat of a lawsuit from the mine's owner and expressions of outrage from the mining industry, which decried the permit revocation as a job killer that would stifle Appalachia's economic recovery.

The veto of the permit issued in 2007 by the Army Corps of Engineers was EPA's 13th use of veto authority given it by the 1972 Clean Water Act. The agency last used that authority in 2008 when it stopped the Army Corps' work on a flood control project that regulators say would have destroyed 67,000 acres of Mississippi River wetlands (E&ENews PM, Sept. 2, 2008).

EPA said it revoked the Spruce No. 1 permit after more talks with the mining company, Mingo Logan Coal Co., a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Arch Coal Co., failed to yield an agreement to substantially reduce environmental damage.

The permit would have allowed the company to dump 110 million cubic yards of mine waste into waterways, bury 6 miles of streams, pollute waters on the site and downstream that would kill wildlife, and dynamite 2,200 acres of mountains and forestland, EPA said.

"The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend," Assistant Administrator for Water Peter Silva said in a statement. "Coal and coal mining are part of our nation's energy future and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation's waters. We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water."

Arch Coal vowed today to go to court to defend the dredge-and-fill permit and "the right to have a predictable regulatory environment." A company spokeswoman said EPA's decision "blocks an additional $250 million investment and 250 well-paying American jobs."

"We remain shocked and dismayed at EPA's continued onslaught with respect to this validly issued permit," Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link said. "We believe this decision will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investment because every business possessing or requiring a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act will fear similar overreaching by the EPA. It's a risk many businesses cannot afford to take."

National Mining Association (NMA) President and CEO Hal Quinn issued a statement saying the veto would weaken the trust that businesses need to make investments and create jobs. Quinn said, "NMA urges the administration to step back from this unwarranted action and restore trust in the sanctity of lawfully granted and abided by permits and the jobs and economic activity they support."

West Virginia's U.S. senators, both Democrats, also expressed outrage and pledged a fight.

Sen. Joe Manchin called the EPA veto a "shocking display of overreach" that sets a dangerous precedent. "I plan to do everything in my power to fight this decision," he said. And Sen. Jay Rockefeller sent a letter to President Obama, decrying EPA's decision to revoke "a rigorously reviewed and lawfully issued permit."

"Let there be no doubt that surface mining operations can and must be done in an environmentally sensitive manner with ever-improving technology," Rockefeller wrote. "However, as a nation we must not fall into the trap of forcing unnecessary choices between protecting the environment and having good paying jobs that support energy independence. We must demand both and find a responsible balance. Today's decision does not strike that balance -- it seeks to tip the scales."

But environmentalists cheered the move just as forcefully as a triumph of science over industry influence.

"It is a relief after all of these years that at least one agency has shown the will to follow the law and the science," said Joe Lovett, lawyer and executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment, a nonprofit that has been fighting the mine for more than 12 years. "Today, the EPA has helped to save these beautiful hollows for future generations."

Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, called the decision "a true victory for the communities nearby, and for all Americans across the country who are fighting to protect our precious natural resources from industrial pollution."

"While this is only one mine of many," she said, "we hope this veto will be the beginning of the end of the devastating practice of mountaintop removal mining by bringing the fundamental legal protection of the Clean Water Act to the whole Appalachian region, once and for all."

Want to read more stories like this?

E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.

Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.