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EPA sets public hearing on Spruce Mine permit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators have scheduled a public hearing for next month on their proposal to veto the largest mountaintop removal mining permit in West Virginia history.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scheduled the hearing for May 18 at the Charleston Civic Center.

The EPA scheduled the hearing to start at 7 p.m., but said anyone who wants to speak must register ahead of time.

On-site registration will start at 5 p.m., but the public can also register online by visiting http://sprucehearing.eventbrite.com.

EPA officials are taking the extremely rare step of trying to veto the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' approval of the permit for Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, 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 the EPA broad authority to veto corps' permit approvals if the EPA believes serious environmental damage would result.

The Spruce Mine has been a the heart 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.

The EPA has consistently raised significant questions about the Spruce Mine 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, the 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 the EPA.

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


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