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Mountaintop removal mining appeal scheduled for Sept. 23

Arguments in the latest mountaintop removal court appeal have been scheduled for late September.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., set the oral argument for Sept. 23, a court docket showed Monday.

Coal industry lawyers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are appealing two related rulings by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to curb mountaintop removal.

Argument had been scheduled for May, but was delayed because of an unspecified "scheduling issue" by the appeals court.

In a March 23, 2007, ruling, Chambers concluded that the corps had not fully evaluated the potential environmental damage before approving four Massey Energy strip-mining permits. Citing the "alarming cumulative stream loss" to valley fills, Chambers ruled that the corps needed more to more thoughtfully consider a mine's potential impacts before granting a permit.

"Coal mining has long been part of the fabric of Appalachian life, providing jobs to support workers and their families and energy to fuel the nation," Chambers wrote.

"Unfortunately, coal mining also extracts a toll on the natural environment. In particular, the mining technique at issue in these permits potentially results in dramatic environmental consequences."

In a second ruling on June 13, Chambers concluded that the Clean Water Act does not allow coal operators to build in-stream sediment ponds at the bottom of valley fills.

Coal industry lawyers argue in their appeal that Chambers' ruling "cripples West Virginia's coal production" and that new permits have "slowed to a standstill" in the state's southern coalfields.

Federal government lawyers argue that the corps properly studied mining's impacts and that Chambers should have deferred to the agency.

Gov. Joe Manchin joined in the appeal, with two of his agencies filing "friend of the court" briefs at the 4th Circuit.

This is the fourth major mountaintop removal ruling by a federal judge in West Virginia to go before the Richmond, Va.-based appeals court. Appeals court panels have overturned the three previous rulings that required tougher regulation of mining.


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