The Army Corps of Engineers cannot use streamlined permitting for mountaintop mining until the government analyzes those permits' effects on the environment, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia ruled the corps erred in letting coal mining companies to dispose of wastes into waters under the "nationwide permit" program.
Nationwide permits are intended for projects with "minimal cumulative environmental impacts." Goodwin wrote in a 63-page opinion that the corps improperly issued those permits without preparing environmental impact assessments. He also said the corps improperly assumed that the damage done by dumping wastes would be properly mitigated without requiring monitoring.
"The corps may not use the nationwide permit process to circumvent its statutory obligations to thoroughly examine the environmental impacts of permitted activities," Goodwin wrote. He noted that thousands of miles of Appalachian streams have been damaged by waste dumped from mountaintop mines.
The ruling comes less than a week after U.S. EPA announced it was going to evaluate mountaintop mining's effects on water quality and aquatic life (E&ENews PM, March 24).
Environmentalists welcomed Goodwin's decision as a sign the courts were moving in the same direction as the Obama administration on mountaintop mining.
"A nationwide permit to dump coal mine waste into our waters would have been a recipe for environmental disaster," said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Jon Devine in a statement. "This important win will help protect Appalachian mountains and streams from harmful mining practices."
Peggy Noel, a spokeswoman for the corps's Huntington, W.Va., office, said the decision is likely to affect 12 existing and at least 10 pending nationwide permits in the court district. She said other nationwide permits issued in other districts are unlikely to be affected.
The corps will have 60 days to decide on an appeal. The case would go to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which ruled in another case this year that the corps can issue permits for mountaintop mining without requiring more extensive environmental reviews (E&ENews PM, Feb. 13).
Click here to read Goodwin's ruling.