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EPA gets more time to process veto of Spruce Mine

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge has given the Obama administration another six months to complete the formal process of deciding if it will veto a Clean Water Act authorization for the largest mountaintop removal mining permit in West Virginia history.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers turned down Arch Coal Inc.'s motion that the judge reject the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's request for more time to consider the matter and complete a threatened permit veto.

In an order issued Thursday, Chambers said that the EPA's review "has a likelihood" of mooting the company's request that he throw out a citizen suit that seeks to block the nearly 2,300-acre Spruce No. 1 Mine permit in Logan County.

"If after completion of its administrative review, EPA chooses to either withdraw or restrict the specification, then this case will be rendered moot because there will be no purpose in the court determining the legal soundness of a permit which is no longer valid," the judge wrote.

EPA officials are taking the extremely rare step of trying to veto the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' approval of the Spruce Mine permit, as part of the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Under the law, the corps generally reviews "dredge-and-fill" permits for strip-mining valley fills. But the law gives EPA broad authority to veto corps' permit approvals if EPA believes serious environmental damage would result.

The Spruce Mine has been at the heat of the mountaintop-removal battle since that fight began more than a decade ago, and all sides have been watching it closely for an indication of how strongly the Obama administration wants to force changes in the practice.

EPA has consistently raised significant questions about the Spruce Mine's potential impact for years, but only last fall under the Obama administration actually took the unprecedented step of trying to veto a corps' dredge-and-fill permit that had already been issued.

Environmental groups have been trying to stop the Spruce Mine since 1998, when it was proposed as a 3,113-acre extension of Arch's Dal-Tex Mine that would have buried more than 10 miles of streams in the Pigeonroost Hollow area near Blair.

U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked the permit, putting more than 300 United Mine Workers members at Dal-Tex out of their jobs. Since then, Arch has transferred the permit to its non-union arm and the Spruce Mine has undergone a much more detailed environmental impact study.

In January 2007, the corps issued a scaled-back version of the Spruce Mine that would bury more than 7 miles of streams. Since then, the permit has been tied up in court, with Arch Coal operating on a limited scale with a few dozen workers.

In late March, EPA issued a "proposed determination" that the mine would cause "unacceptable adverse impacts." That notice continued a formal process -- including public comment and a hearing -- that could lead to the ultimate veto of the permit by EPA.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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