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Judge declines speedy ruling against EPA mine rules

Read the decision. 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration appears to have exceeded its legal authority in launching tougher permit reviews and issuing new water quality guidance as part of its crackdown on mountaintop removal coal mining, a federal judge has ruled.

But U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in Washington, D.C., also ruled that the coal industry has not shown an urgent need for a court injunction to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's actions from shutting down coal-mining operations.

In a Friday ruling, Walton denied the EPA's request that he throw out the suit, but also refused to grant a preliminary injunction the National Mining Association sought against the agency.

The decision is the first legal ruling in the mining industry's effort to undo Obama administration permit reviews and water quality guidance that EPA says are designed to "significantly reduce the harmful consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations."

EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said the agency was reviewing the judge's decision and had no immediate comment.

In a prepared statement, the National Mining Association said that it was encouraged that the judge said its suit may prevail on the merits, but disappointed that there was no preliminary injunction granted.

"We remain committed to pursuing the merits of our case," said mining group President Hal Quinn.

Earthjustice lawyer Jennifer Chavez, who represents environmental groups that intervened on EPA's side of the case, declined comment on the judge's ruling.

While the coal industry favors mountaintop removal's efficiency, and local political leaders praise the jobs provided, there is a growing scientific consensus that the practice is causing widespread and irreversible damage to the region's forests, water quality and communities.

Coal industry lawyers sued the EPA last July, alleging that the agency was writing new regulations without required public input and exceeding its legal authority over surface mining operations.

EPA asked the judge to dismiss the case, arguing that more rigorous permit reviews and new guidance did not amount to final agency decisions that could be challenged in court.

But Walton concluded that, "it is clear to the court that the EPA has implemented a change in the permitting process" that can be challenged.

Walton ruled that the industry is likely to win on the merits of its case, but had not shown that mining companies face irreparable harm needed to warrant a preliminary injunction prior to a full hearing on the case.

"If a plaintiff has shown that financial losses are certain, imminent and unrecoverable, then the imposition of a preliminary injunction is appropriate and necessary," Walton wrote. "Here, however, the plaintiff has not demonstrated the imminence of any of its members' losses."

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


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