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Environmentalists oppose early mountaintop removal trial date

Environmentalists told a federal judge on Tuesday that they oppose scheduling an earlier trial date in a case over the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

Lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and other citizens asked Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden to deny a request from Arch Coal Inc. to move the trial date up from early September.

On March 3, Haden issued a preliminary injunction that halted permits for the 3,100-acre Spruce Fork operation that Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining wants to put on Pigeonroost Branch in Logan County.

The injunction means Hobet Mining cannot expand its Dal-Tex mining operation into Pigeonroost Branch until Haden makes a final ruling in the case following a September trial.

Hobet Mining has told the nearly 400 miners at Dal-Tex that most of them will be laid off by August because of the injunction.

Lawyers for Arch Coal asked Haden to separate the Pigeonroost Branch permit case from a larger case that accuses the state Division of Environmental Protection of a "pattern and practice" of issuing improper mountaintop removal permits.

On Friday, Hobet Mining lawyer Roger Wolfe asked the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to expedite an appeal of Haden's preliminary injunction.

Wolfe told the court that, "Until Hobet's appeal can be decided, Hobet will continue to suffer enormous financial losses and will be forced to proceed with the phased shutdown of operations and layoffs of employees."

In his motion, Wolfe said that the closing of the mine will "cause financial losses of approximately $19.4 million for the remainder of 1999, and $21.7 million and $18.7 million, respectively, for the following years."

In a five-page document filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Charleston, environmental lawyer Joe Lovett said that Arch Coal, DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have had plenty of time to fix problems with the Pigeonroost Branch permit.

"The real cause of the harm to miners and their families is Hobet's inadequate permit application, and the DEP's and the Corps' illegal permitting practices," Lovett wrote.

"Since plaintiffs sent their notice letter in April 1998, Hobet, DEP and the Corps have had a year to reform and correct their illegal practices. They failed to do so," Lovett wrote. "Although the Complaint was filed on July 16, 1998, neither Hobet nor DEP have taken any steps to bring the application into compliance with the law."

Lovett argued that environmentalist would not have time to interview witnesses, review documents, obtain expert reports, and otherwise prepare for the trial any sooner than September.

Lovett also wrote that his clients are not trying to stop all coal mining in West Virginia, and settled part of their case against the Corps to allow smaller strip mines to be permitted.

"Plaintiffs are not attempting to halt surface coal mining in West Virginia, but are only attempting to force the agencies and the industries to follow the law," Lovett wrote.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.


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