CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its powers by setting up water-quality criteria for coal mining operations in Appalachia, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in Washington ruled that the EPA infringed on the authority given to state regulators by federal clean- water and surface-mining laws. A coal mining industry coalition sued the EPA and Administrator Lisa Jackson, and the lawsuit was joined by West Virginia and Kentucky.
The ruling represents the latest setback to the Obama administration's attempts to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining.
Last year, the EPA revised standards issued in April 2010 by tightening guidelines on the practice of dumping waste from surface mine blasting into Appalachian valley waterways. Critics say that practice destroys the environment. The mining industry defends it as an efficient way to produce cheap power and employ thousands in well-paying jobs.
The EPA had written that the fundamental premise of its new guidelines was that "no discharge of dredged or fill material may be permitted" under any of three conditions: if the nation's waters would be "significantly degraded"; if it causes or contributes to violations of a state's water quality standard; or "if a practicable alternative exists that is less damaging to the aquatic environment."
The National Mining Association, one of the plaintiffs, denounced the guidelines as a "jobs destroyer" and hailed Walton's decision as a way to get miners back to work "by allowing the state permitting agencies to do their jobs."
"This is really the sort of ax that has fallen on EPA's entire guidance regime with respect to coal permits," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the association.
Last year, Walton sided with the National Mining Association in its challenge of a 2009 decision in which the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to coordinate reviews of backlogged permit applications for waste disposal at Appalachia mountaintop mining operations that raised serious environmental concerns.
And in March, another federal judge declared valid water pollution permits that the EPA had revoked for one of West Virginia's largest mountaintop removal coal mines. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had issued the permits for the 2,300-acre Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County.
A message left with the EPA wasn't immediately returned.
Cindy Rank, chair of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy's Mining Committee, said Tuesday's decision "continues to put us living in Appalachia in the unconscionable position of having to document our own communities' sickness, disease and other unexplained health impacts as reasons to finally stop the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining."
Even Walton recognized the dilemma, saying the court "is not unappreciative of the viable interests asserted by all parties to this litigation." Continued...