MINING:

Judge allows mountaintop-removal lawsuit to proceed

Mining companies can proceed with their challenge to U.S. EPA's new policies on mountaintop-removal coal mining, a federal judge has ruled in a preliminary decision that says EPA may have exceeded its legal authority.

It appears EPA changed the permitting process for coal mines without following the usual procedural steps, says the ruling, which was issued Friday by Judge Reggie Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The National Mining Association (NMA) appears likely to prevail on that point if the case goes forward, Walton wrote. But he concluded the plaintiffs have not proved that the agency's actions have caused them harm, so the agency will be allowed to continue for the time being with its crackdown on water quality issues related to the controversial practice.

A decision that EPA failed to follow procedural rules would be a significant rebuke to the Obama administration, which has maintained that the projects violate the Clean Water Act. These types of questions will have to "be left for another day," the decision says.

"While it may be true that the challenged EPA actions were 'designed to significantly reduce the harmful environmental consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations, while ensuring that future mining remains consistent with federal laws,' these environmental interests -- the actual environmental impact of surface mining -- are not currently before the court," Walton wrote.

The ruling was handed down one day after EPA made the rare decision to veto a water quality permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine, a project being developed in West Virginia by St. Louis-based Arch Coal Co. Peter Silva, who has overseen the crackdown on mountaintop-removal mining as EPA's top water official, announced his resignation Friday (Greenwire, Jan. 14).

Though the mining group had hoped the court would freeze EPA's actions, it described the court ruling as a good sign for its lawsuit.

"We are encouraged by the court's finding that NMA is likely to succeed in showing the [EPA] has exceeded its authority under the Clean Water Act," said Hal Quinn, the group's president and CEO, in a statement. "These assorted actions have been used by EPA to impose a near-moratorium on coal mining permits in Appalachia."

Click here to read the decision.

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