A week ago, state strip mine regulators asked environmentalists to sit down and help resolve complaints that permits for huge mountaintop removal mines violate the law.
John Ailes, chief of the Division of Environmental Protection's Office of Mining and Reclamation, asked for a meeting with West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley and other environmental group lawyers.
In a June 12 letter, Ailes wrote that mountaintop removal concerns "should more effectively be addressed and refined through a dialogue among the various stakeholders, and state and federal regulators, rather than within the confines of a court proceeding."
After they received Ailes' letter, environmentalists and coalfield residents asked DEP to postpone issuing a new mountaintop removal permit in Logan County until alleged problems with the permit are worked out.
Late last week, DEP Director Michael Miano refused. Miano said he sees no reason to slow down issuance of new mountaintop removal permits.
"My guidance has been to continue as we have been doing," Miano said. "I have not been advised that we have been doing anything illegal or wrong. In the face of that, I don't see any reason to change what we're doing."
On Thursday, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Logan County residents James W. and Sibby R. Weekley filed a formal notice that they plan to sue DEP if the agency doesn't back off the Blair permit.
The issue could end up in court this week, providing a much earlier legal showdown on mountaintop removal than anyone involved in the controversy expected.
"Premature action on the mining permit is likely to create a serious risk of conflict between the federal Water Pollution Control Act and the approved state surface mining program," Joe Lovett, another lawyer for the citizens, wrote in the notice of intent to sue.
The permit in question, the largest in state history, would allow Arch Coal Inc. to expand its Dal-Tex mining complex onto 3,100 acres along Pigeonroost Branch near Blair.
David Todd, a vice president and press spokesman for Arch Coal, declined comment on Friday.
Miano said his agency plans to move ahead with permit issuance, regardless of any lawsuits.
"I have several suits on my desk," Miano said. "We may get others. We will get to them in their turn."
The Dal-Tex mining permit is expected to be issued by Wednesday.
But strip mines must receive two types of permits: mining permits under the state Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, permits under the state Water Pollution Control Act.
On June 5, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a formal objection to stop the state from issuing an NPDES permit for the Dal-Tex mine expansion.