Court backs EPA veto of mountaintop mining project

Several lawmakers have pushed bills to strip the environmental agency’s power to “retroactively” veto the Corps's Clean Water Act permits that allow companies to dispose of mining wastes in Appalachian streams.

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Tuesday's decision is not the end of the line. The appeals court remanded the case back to the federal district court to decide whether the EPA’s action was a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, which the lower court did not address in its 2012 decision against the agency.

A spokeswoman for Arch Coal said the company was disappointed with the appeals court's ruling, but noted the case is not over.

“We’re disappointed in the decision, which was related to the procedural aspects of the proceeding. The case will now go back to the district court for a decision on the merits,” said spokeswoman Kim Link.

Environmental groups on Tuesday applauded the decision against Mingo Logan Coal Co., a subsidiary of Arch Coal, a major U.S. producer.

“The Spruce Mine was the largest mountaintop removal permit ever proposed in West Virginia history, and its valley fills would have buried more than six miles of streams. Today's ruling affirms EPA's authority to ensure the safety of our waterways and the health of our communities, including by vetoing improper permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Mary Anne Hitt, who heads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) blasted the appeals court decision.

“Today’s decision would open the floodgates to disrupting coal mining in West Virginia and elsewhere by granting the EPA unprecedented and seemingly limitless authority over Clean Water Act 404 permits,” he said in a statement.

The Spruce mine was the 13th time since 1972 that the EPA had used the veto authority, and the first time it was ever wielded against a previously permitted mine, according to The Associated Press.

Rahall vowed fresh legislative efforts to lessen the EPA’s power.

“I will soon be reintroducing the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act, legislation the House approved last year to prevent the EPA from using the guise of clean water as a means to disrupt coal mining as they have now done with respect to the Spruce Mine in Logan County, West Virginia,” he said in a statement.