A second state Division of Environmental Protection official was scolded Thursday by a federal judge for evading questions about the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.
Nick Schaer, a geologist with the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation, was the agency's second witness in defense of the 3,100-acre permit granted to Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary Hobet Mining.
Schaer dodged repeated questions from Joe Lovett, a lawyer for environmentalists who are challenging the permit.
Several times, Schaer laughed at Lovett's inquiries. That prompted a stern warning from Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II.
"You are fencing with counsel and you have been with the court and I will not have it," the judge said. "You either answer the question, or say you do not know the answer."
DEP lawyer Tom Clarke tried to defend Schaer, but Haden cut him off.
"Instruct your witness to answer questions or to profess ignorance of the answers," Haden told Clarke.
Schaer was part of a DEP permit review team that recommended agency Director Michael Miano issue the permit for Hobet to strip a five-square-mile area along Pigeonroost Branch near Blair, Logan County.
Haden has already halted state and federal permits for the mine until Feb. 23. The judge is hearing testimony on whether to grant a longer delay with a preliminary injunction requested by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
Schaer testified that he studied the proposed mine's potential impacts on water quality and found them to be negligible.
"I found that ... adverse effects to the ecological balance were unlikely," Schaer told Haden.