At least one federal regulatory agency has agreed to halt the permitting of new strip mine valley fills for at least 60 days.
Lawyers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden III to approve the moratorium to run through at least Oct. 5.
Corps lawyers said the action is hoped to promote discussion and/or negotiations among the interested federal agencies.
The Corps filed the request as a joint motion with lawyers for environmentalists and coalfield residents who allege mountaintop removal mining permits have been issued in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The joint motion was filed just a day after Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., urged the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to impose a temporary moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits until regulators finish a series of studies on the issue.
Unlike old-time strip mining, mountaintop removal shaves off entire hilltops to reach valuable low-sulfur coal underneath. Leftover rock and earth are dumped into stream beds, forming waste piles called valley fills.
A lawsuit filed in mid-July by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and 10 coalfield residents alleges, among other things, that the Corps has illegally authorized valley fills under the Clean Water Act's "dredge and fill" permits.
Court rulings have held those permits cannot be issued for dumping of waste material, such as mine spoil.
Corps officials conceded publicly several weeks ago that they had stopped issuing valley fill permits after environmental groups' lawyers showed those court rulings out to them.