A federal judge on Monday refused to revoke the largest mountaintop removal strip mine permit in West Virginia history.
Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden turned down a request by environmentalists for a temporary restraining order to rescind the permit issued last week by the state Division of Environmental Protection.
Haden sided with lawyers for Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc., who said there was no need for the action.
Roger Wolfe, a Hobet lawyer, said the company would not start mining without first receiving two other permits from federal regulatory agencies.
Wolfe also said that, once those permits are issued, Hobet would not start mining for 10 days so environmentalists would have time to challenge the permit again in court.
Arch Coal and DEP officials said last week that, legally, no mining could begin until additional permits are approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
During a hearing Monday, Haden said he concluded that Hobet "made a significant concession to the environmentalists here today.
"I am going to deny the application for a temporary restraining order. It is moot because the coal company lawyers have conceded not to attempt to take further action until this is resolved."
Monday's 45-minute hearing was the first public court skirmish in what promises to be a long legal battle over the future of mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Several dozen environmental activists, industry lobbyists and state DEP officials attended the hearing in the federal courthouse in Charleston.
In July, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents filed suit over the practice.
The suit alleges that DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have issued mountaintop removal permits that don't comply with federal environmental rules.
Among other things, the suit alleges these permits allow coal companies to illegally bury streams under millions of tons of waste rock and earth. The suit also alleges permits do not force coal companies to prepare required post-mining development plans for land flattened by mountaintop removal.
Last week, DEP Director Michael Miano issued a permit that would allow Hobet Mining to strip a 5-square-mile area along Pigeonroost Branch near Blair, Logan County.
Environmentalists had specifically targeted this mining proposal in their suit. They alleged the permit written by DEP did not include required showings that the mining will not harm streams or violate the federal Clean Water Act.
Currently, the mine is in limbo because EPA has refused to allow the state to issue a Clean Water Act permit to allow five large valley fills in and around Pigeonroost Branch.
Environmental group lawyer Joe Lovett told Haden that DEP lawyer Russ Hunter violated an agreement to give Lovett two days notice before a separate mining permit for the Pigeonroost Branch mine was granted.
"Basically, we had a deal and he broke it," Lovett said.