Federal regulators on Wednesday stopped the state from issuing a permit for a new A.T. Massey Coal Co. mountaintop removal strip mine.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited a new state law that would allow the Massey mine to fill in streams with waste rock and dirt without compensating the state for the loss.
EPA officials also hinted they would block all similar permits unless the Underwood administration backs off its vigorous support of the new mine "mitigation" law.
"We will look at each permit on a case-by-case basis," said EPA Region III Administrator W. Michael McCabe. "We have to make sure no permit is issued that doesn't have adequate mitigation."
Environmental groups and some top officials within DEP warned Gov. Cecil Underwood that the mitigation bill would prompt EPA actions, as well as permit delays for coal companies.
Some in the coal industry, including Arch Coal Inc., opposed the bill as well. Underwood agreed with the West Virginia Coal Association and Massey lobbyist K.O. Damron and signed it into law.
In a Wednesday letter to Barbara Taylor, chief of the DEP Office of Water Resources, EPA objected to the state issuing a water pollution permit for Massey subsidiary Independence Coal Co.'s proposed Constitution Mine.
The mountaintop removal project would produce about 1.1 million tons of coal for more than 15 years, starting in January 1999, according to a permit application on file with the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation.
Huge shovels and dozers would move nearly 300 million cubic yards of earth and rocks to reach valuable low-sulfur coal seams along Pond Fork near Uneeda in Boone County.
The company would put about two-thirds of that material back on mountaintops. The other 100 million would be dumped into seven valley fills, burying area streams.
The Constitution Mine is the first through the regulatory pipeline since the state approved its new mine mitigation bill earlier this year.
Investigators from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining are already looking into the project's mining permit. They question whether its proposed post-mining land use - fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands - allows it to qualify for a special reclamation exemption under state and federal law.
EPA officials first questioned a water pollution permit for the mine and valley fills in April.
In the Wednesday letter to the state, EPA Region III water division Director Thomas Maslany outlined the federal agency's specific objections to the permit.