Federal Judge Bans Mountaintop Waste Dumping
A federal judge's ruling that bans the dumping of waste from mountaintop coal mining into streams was hailed by environmentalists as a victory for the waterways of Appalachia, but attacked by miners as a threat to the industry.
U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II issued the ruling Wednesday, agreeing with a Kentucky citizen group that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Huntington, W.Va., district office didn't have the authority to issue permits to dump mountaintop waste.
``We could not continue to annihilate our hills and our streams,'' said Patty Wallace, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth Inc. ``Too many people are willing to shove it off on the next generation.''
The ruling runs counter to a recent Bush administration decision to amend a clean-water rule to allow the mining practice. In his ruling, Haden said such a change would violate the federal Clean Water Act.
The permits banned in the ruling were issued to coal companies seeking to practice mountaintop coal mining, in which the tops of mountains are sheared off by explosives and large earth-moving machines are used to expose coal seams.
Although federal mining laws require companies to restore land to its approximate original contour, companies have received permits to dump tons of excess rock and dirt into valley streams.
``Some believe that reasonably priced energy from coal requires cheap disposal of the vast amounts of waste material created when mountaintops are removed to get at the natural resource,'' Haden wrote in Wednesday's ruling.
``Congress did not, however, authorize cheap waste disposal when it passed the Clean Water Act,'' he wrote.
Haden had also ruled in 1999 that dumping mine waste in streams violated federal law. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, saying Haden lacked jurisdiction because the underlying lawsuit in that case involved a state agency.
Haden's latest ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed against the corps in February by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
The group sued to halt Beechfork Processing Inc.'s mountaintop removal mine in Martin County, Ky. The excess rock and soil from the mine would bury more than six miles of stream.
The lawsuit was filed in West Virginia because the corps' Huntington bureau, which covers West Virginia and parts of Kentucky and Ohio, issued the permit.
``I think Judge Haden was predisposed to do what he did,'' said Bill Caylor of the Kentucky Coal Association, which intervened in the lawsuit.
``Either the judge's ruling will be overturned or the Appalachian coal industry will be shut down,'' he said.
Corps spokesman Steve Wright said agency officials were reviewing the ruling. He said at least 10 federal permits are pending for West Virginia mines and nine for Kentucky mines.