EPA vetoes Spruce Mine
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators on Thursday vetoed Arch Coal Inc.'s proposal for the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history, saying the company had refused to adopt alternative mining plans that would do less environmental damage.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said the 2,300-acre Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County would use "destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and the clean water on which they depend."
"Coal and coal mining are part of our nation's energy future, and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation's waters," said Peter Silva, EPA's assistant administrator for water. "We have a responsibility to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water."
EPA rescinded Clean Water Act approval for Arch Coal's non-union Mingo Logan Coal Co. subsidiary to dump waste rock and dirt into 6.6 miles of Pigeonroost Branch, Oldhouse Branch and their tributaries. The agency said it would allow mining to continue on another portion of the site, burying nearly a mile of streams in the Seng Camp Creek watershed, because work there had already begun.
The EPA action, part of an Obama administration effort to reduce the impacts of strip mining, drew praise from environmental and citizen groups and harsh criticism from the mining industry and coalfield political leaders.
"It is a relief after all of these years that at least one agency has shown the will to follow the law and the science by stopping the destruction of Pigeonroost Hollow and Oldhouse Branch," said Joe Lovett, an environmental group lawyer who has challenged the Spruce Mine proposal for more than a dozen years. "Today, the EPA has helped to save these beautiful hollows for future generations.
"Unfortunately, the Spruce Mine's impacts are not unique," Lovett added. "Although we are grateful for EPA's action today, EPA must follow through by vetoing the scores of other corps permits that violate the Clean Water Act and that would allow mountaintop mines to lay waste to our mountains and streams."
Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link said the company remained "shocked and dismayed at EPA's continued onslaught with respect to this validly issued permit." Company lawyers had already challenged EPA's review of the permit, and that suit remains pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, along with members of West Virginia's congressional delegation, issued statements condemning EPA and predicting the courts would overrule the agency. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., called the EPA decision "a staged event to reward a core constituency that doesn't want any coal mining or coal plants, no matter the cost to West Virginia or our nation."
The National Mining Association said EPA's action "threatens the certainty" of all Clean Water Act "dredge-and-fill" permits "weakening the trust U.S. businesses and workers need to make investments and secure jobs."
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the corps generally reviews and approves these permits, which allow mining operators to bury streams with millions of tons of waste rock and dirt. Congress gave the EPA broad authority to step in and block such waste dumping if it believes the damage is too great or could have been avoided.
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. Then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked the permit in 1999, putting more than 300 United Mine Workers members at Dal-Tex out of work. Since then, Arch has transferred the site to its non-union operations and the Spruce Mine has undergone one of the most detailed environmental studies ever in the coal industry.
Corps officials in January 2007 issued a permit for a scaled-back version, a 2,300-acre operation that would bury more than seven miles of streams. The mine eventually would employ 250 workers and mine about 44 million tons of coal over about 15 years.
EPA officials have questioned the Spruce Mine from the beginning, and in a comment letter submitted to the corps under President George W. Bush in 2006 complained about the potential impacts and said more changes in the operation were needed.
In a 99-page final decision document issued Thursday morning, EPA said, "there appear to be additional practicable alternative project configurations and practices that would significantly reduce and/or avoid anticipated environmental and water quality impacts to Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch."
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said in a statement Thursday, "Although we do not represent the workers at the Spruce Mine, every job is precious in the coalfields and we don't like to see any lost.
"It is truly unfortunate that the EPA and the mine operator could not come to an agreement that would allow many of those jobs to be saved," Roberts said.
"As we move forward from this day, we must be about the work of creating good, safe coal jobs in the coalfield communities, not eliminating them," Roberts said. "We believe that can be done within a reasonable regulatory framework and with a willingness on the part of the government to share that goal."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.