Read the ruling: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dealing another blow to the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal, a federal judge on Tuesday threw out new federal guidance that aimed to reduce water pollution from Appalachian coal mining operations.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority under federal water protection and strip mining laws when it issued the water quality guidance.
Walton also found that EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson "infringed on the authority" of state regulators to govern their own pollution permit and water quality standard programs.
The guidance in question aimed for tougher permit application reviews, including more detailed studies of whether mining impacts can be avoided or reduced, new testing of potential toxic impacts of mining discharges, and recommended limits on increases in pollution-related electrical conductivity, a crucial measure of water quality.
Walton concluded, though, that the EPA has "only a limited role" in such matters once states obtain federal permission to run their own water pollution permitting agencies. It is beyond the EPA's authority to demand specific toxic-impact tests, and agency officials wrongly were treating the purported "guidance" as binding on state permitting agencies, Walton said.
In a 34-page decision, Walton also noted the obvious: that it is unlikely his decision will end the growing debate over mountaintop removal's impact on the environment and public health, or on the future of coal in the region.
"How to best strike a balance between, on the one hand, the need to preserve the verdant landscapes and natural resources of Appalachia and, on the other hand, the economic role that coal mining plays in the region is not, however, a question for the court to decide," the judge wrote.
The much-anticipated ruling is the third courtroom loss so far this year for the EPA on an issue related to mountaintop removal.
In January, Walton threw out the EPA's plans to work with other agencies to more closely scrutinize certain mining-related water pollution permits for valley fill waste piles. And in March, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, also in the District of Columbia, overturned the EPA's veto of the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history. The EPA is appealing Jackson's ruling.
The National Mining Association, one of the groups that challenged the EPA guidance, praised Walton's decision, saying it "has truly given coal miners and coal mining communities their 'day in court.'
"As we have always maintained, [the] EPA has engaged in an unlawful overreach in its attempt to commandeer the permitting responsibilities the law places with other state and federal agencies," the mining association said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, who as governor also sued the EPA over the mining guidance, said the ruling marks "a great day for West Virginia.
"I'm pleased and gratified to hear that the federal court has ruled in favor of our state, the miners who work here, and the people who depend on coal for their livelihoods," said Manchin, D-W.Va.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the ruling shows that the state Department of Environmental Protection "knows what's best for West Virginia, not the federal government."