A federal judge on Wednesday granted a preliminary injunction that could block the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia's history for another six months. Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden ordered state and federal regulators to withhold permits for the 3,100-acre Arch Coal Inc. permit near Blair, Logan County.
Haden also ordered Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining not to start any pre-construction or mining activities until the court resolves a complicated case over mountaintop removal permitting sometime later this year.
In a 47-page order, Haden cited permanent damage to streams, forests and wildlife around Pigeonroost Hollow if the mine were allowed to go forward.
"If the forest canopy of Pigeonroost Hollow is leveled, exposing the stream to extreme temperatures, and aquatic life is destroyed, these harms cannot be undone," Haden wrote.
"If the forest wildlife are driven away by the blasting, the noise, and the lack of safe nesting and eating areas, they cannot be coaxed back," he wrote.
"If the mountaintop is removed, even Hobet's engineers will affirm that it cannot be reclaimed to its exact original contour.
"Destruction of the unique topography of Southern West Virginia, and of Pigeonroost Hollow in particular, cannot be regarded as anything but permanent and irreversible."
In his ruling, Haden did not downplay the potential economic harm to Hobet and its employees. The company has already laid off 13 workers, and has threatened more lost jobs, citing delays in receiving a permit to expand its Dal-Tex mining complex.
"Hobet has made a significant investment in the Spruce Fork mine, considering the cost of the operation itself, the cost of purchasing homes around the proposed mine, and preparing permit applications," Haden wrote.
However, Haden ruled that, when it wrote federal mining laws, "Congress recognized the need to ensure the balance is maintained among protecting the environment, protecting the citizenry and coal industry. Nonetheless, against a backdrop of prior mining with little environmental regulation, it is clear the laws' primary protections extend to the citizenry and the environment."
Mountaintop removal blasts off entire hilltops. Huge earth-moving machines dig out valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into valleys, burying streams under waste piles called valley fills.
In his order, the judge wrote that, "The Court's helicopter flyover of all mountaintop removal sites in Southern West Virginia revealed the extent and permanence of environmental degradation this type of mining produces.
"On February 26, the ground was covered with light snow, and mined sites were visible from miles away," Haden observed. "The sites stood out among the natural wooded ridges as huge white plateaus, and the valley fills appeared as massive, artificially landscaped stair steps.
"Some mine sites were 20 years old, yet tree growth was stunted or nonexistent," he wrote. "Compared to the thick hardwoods of surrounding undisturbed hills, the mine sites appeared stark and barren and enormously different from the original topography."
In July 1998, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents filed a massive lawsuit that seeks to curb mountaintop removal.
The suit alleged that Dana Robertson, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Michael Miano, director of the state Division of Environmental Protection, had established a "pattern and practice" of issuing mountaintop removal permits that violate the federal Clean Water Act and the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation act.