Environmentalists have turned their legal fight toward stopping the largest mountaintop removal mine permit in West Virginia history.
Last week, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents filed an amended lawsuit in federal court to challenge a permit for the Arch Coal Inc. Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County.
The groups want to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from issuing a permit for the 3,100-acre mine on Pigeonroost Branch near Blair.
The Spruce mine was exempted from a new federal government plan to require extensive environmental studies before mountaintop removal mines are permitted.
The corps is expected later this month to authorize valley fills associated with the mine under a less stringent, nationwide general permit.
In court papers filed Wednesday, attorney Joe Lovett argues that the corps cannot authorize the mine that way, because nationwide general permits are to be used only for activities that have minimal adverse environmental impacts.
Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc. wants the Spruce permit so it can expand its Dal-Tex mining complex. The mine employs about 400 people. The company has already laid off a handful of workers, and threatens more job losses if it doesn't receive the expansion permit quickly.
In July 1997, the conservancy filed a lawsuit aimed at curbing mountaintop removal. The suit alleged that the corps and the state Division of Environmental Protection permitted mines that violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
In late December, the conservancy and various federal agencies agreed on a plan that would halt most mountaintop removal permits until a two-year environmental impact study can be completed. Most large mines permitted before that study is completed would be subject to lengthy, though somewhat less rigorous, reviews.
The Spruce permit, however, was exempted from those requirements. Michael McCabe is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator who negotiated the deal.
In a Dec. 22 letter to citizens who commented on the Spruce permit, McCabe touted an agreement by Arch Coal to "significantly scale back its valley fill plans."