On June 24, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers withdrew its blanket approval of Arch Coal Inc.'s proposal for the largest mountaintop removal mining permit in West Virginia history.
Company lawyers and executives seemed stunned.
Arch Coal CEO Steven Leer said, "The Corps has simply failed to keep its promise" to authorize the 3,100-acre Dal-Tex complex Spruce Mine expansion through a general, nationwide permit.
Roger Wolfe, lead lawyer for Arch subsidiary Hobet Mining, told a federal judge that the Corps' actions were "arbitrary, capricious, [and] an abuse of discretion."
Without the Corps permit, Arch can't open the mine. Four hundred union miners could lose their jobs.
Arch Coal warned
More than two months ago, however, the Corps warned Arch Coal that the agency wanted to revoke its approval of the Spruce Mine under a nationwide permit, according to internal government records and interviews.
In an April 29 memo that she placed in her files, Corps regulatory specialist Teresa D. Hughes wrote that the issue was discussed in a conference call that day with Kirk Stark, an official at the Corps' Washington office.
"He explained that Hobet Mining should be contacted tomorrow concerning the withdrawal of its application," Hughes wrote. "There would be no further litigation regarding the Federal Government, provided the Nationwide application is withdrawn."
Wolfe confirmed Friday that "some months ago, someone on our side got a call from someone, I think in the local Corps office, stating that they were thinking about withdrawing authorization."
The history of various permits for the Spruce Mine, along Pigeonroost Branch in Logan County, is complicated.
In November 1998, Hobet Mining asked the Corps to approve the project under a general, nationwide permit. Such permits are allowed only for activities that would cause minimal, cumulative adverse environmental impacts.
The Corps proposed to issue the permit. Agency officials drafted a letter approving it, but never sent the letter.
In February, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a handful of coalfield citizens went to court to stop the Corps.
On March 3, Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden issued a preliminary injunction that barred the Corps from issuing its permit for the operation.
Among other things, Haden said Hobet Mining and the Corps had illegally "segmented" the Spruce Mine into smaller parts, so regulators wouldn't take a closer look, as they would if it were one large mine proposal.