CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was clearly within its legal authority when it rejected a permit for one of the largest mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia history, a panel of three federal appeals court judges ruled Tuesday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia panel -- made up of three Republican-appointed judges -- reversed a lower court ruling that had thrown out the EPA's veto of the Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal Inc.'s Spruce Mine in Logan County.
Writing for the unanimous panel, Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson said federal law gives the EPA authority to veto permits that agency officials believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was wrong to issue.
"The Congress made plain its intent to grant the [EPA] administrator authority to prohibit/deny/restrict/withdraw a specification at any time," Henderson wrote in a much anticipated 15-page decision.
Coal industry officials and coalfield politicians have argued that the EPA did not have the legal power to veto the Spruce Mine permit after it was issued. Their complaints about the EPA's veto have been at the heart of their campaign to paint the EPA as a rogue agency carrying out an illegal effort to destroy the Appalachian coal industry.
Under the law as outlined in Tuesday's court ruling, the EPA has broad authority to veto the corps' Clean Water Act "dredge and fill" permits, but only after EPA officials have determined the proposed activity would have an "unacceptable adverse effect" on the environment.
"Today's decision is a total vindication of the Clean Water Act and EPA's vital authority to protect all American communities from all kinds of environmental harm," said Emma Cheuse, an Earthjustice lawyer who filed a legal brief for citizen groups supporting the EPA's veto. "At bottom, it is a recognition that EPA and the Obama administration are on the right track in trying to deal with the devastating impacts of mountaintop removal."
EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said agency officials are pleased with the ruling. Arch Coal did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat whose district includes the mine site at issue, blasted the court ruling and promised to reintroduce previously unsuccessful legislation to strip the EPA of its veto authority.
"Today's ruling makes clear that congressional action will be needed," Rahall said.
Jason Bostic, a vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, agreed.
"I can't imagine Congress intended things to work this way," Bostic said.
At issue in the Spruce case was an Army Corps-issued permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine, an operation environmentalist groups have been trying to stop since 1998, when it was first proposed as a 3,113-acre extension of Arch's Dal-Tex Mine that would have buried more than 10 miles of streams.