For years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handed out permits that allowed coal companies to put millions of tons of strip-mine waste into valleys and streams.
Earlier this year, the corps suddenly stopped approving those permits.
In July, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy sued the corps and the state Division of Environmental Protection to try to curb mountaintop removal coal mining.
Among other things, the conservancy alleges the corps cannot authorize valley-fill, strip-mine waste piles under the Clean Water Act's "dredge and fill" permit provisions.
The corps agreed with the argument. When corps officials talked with conservancy lawyers in March, before the suit was filed, the agency stopped issuing valley- fill permits.
This week, the corps' position will take center stage in the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.
Joe Lovett, lead lawyer for the conservancy, filed papers on Monday in federal court arguing that the corps' position proves his clients should be given an injunction against any new mountaintop removal permits.
Lovett filed copies of sworn statements from three corps officials from Huntington, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. All three said they don't currently believe the corps can permit valley fills under the dredge and fill provisions.
"We do not regulate them," Rick Buckley, chief of the corps' permitting section in Huntington, said in a sworn statement in November.
Rodney Woods, regulatory program manager with the corps' division office in Cincinnati, said the law was never intended to allow the corps to permit valley fills. "Maybe they just sort of oozed into that," Woods said.