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TRIAL SET IN LATEST MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL CASE

A federal judge this week will hear legal arguments and scientific testimony in the latest legal attack on mountaintop removal coal mining.

This morning, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers starts trial in Huntington in a case filed more than a year ago against the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

Lawyers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups want Chambers to force the corps to conduct more detailed environmental studies before it issues Clean Water Act permits to mine operators.

The suit specifically targets permit approved for four Massey Energy operations. But Chambers' ruling could set a broader policy that affects all future mining operations in Southern West Virginia.

The case focuses on the corps' process for approving mountaintop removal valley fills through its traditional "individual" Clean Water Act permits.

In their lawsuit, environmental group lawyers say that the corps failed to take the "hard look" at potential environmental impacts before it approved the permits. Corps officials, the lawyers say, should have prepared a detailed "environmental impact statement," for each mine before approve each permit.

During this week's trial, environmental group lawyers plan to offer expert testimony about mining's impacts and potential damage being ignored by the corps, court records show.

In mountaintop removal mining, coal operators blast off entire hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal seams. Leftover rock and dirt is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.

Since 1999, two federal judges in West Virginia have issued rulings to curb or more strictly regulate mountaintop removal. Both were overturned by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

In February, two West Virginia judges who sit on the 4th Circuit, Robert B. King and M. Blane Michael, issued a dissent that lamented mining damage to "the oldest mountain chain in the world" and "one of the nation's richest, most diverse and most delicate ecosystems."

One of the cases previously overturned by the 4th Circuit is back before U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin. Environmental group lawyers have asked Goodwin to block new mining permits on legal issues he did not previously decide and which the 4th Circuit did not consider.

In the case before Chambers, the other environmental groups who filed suit are Coal River Mountain Watch and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

The Massey permits that are being challenged are for Aracoma Coal Co.'s Camp Branch Surface Mine and Independence Coal Co.'s Laxare East Surface Mine, both in Boone County; Alex Energy's Republic No. 2 Mine along the Kanawha-Fayette line; and Elk Run Coal Co.'s Black Castle Mine in Boone County.


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