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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators on Thursday vetoed Arch Coal Inc.'s proposal for the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history, saying the company had refused to adopt alternative mining plans that would do less environmental damage.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said the 2,300-acre Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County would use "destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and the clean water on which they depend."
"Coal and coal mining are part of our nation's energy future, and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation's waters," said Peter Silva, EPA's assistant administrator for water. "We have a responsibility to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water."
EPA rescinded Clean Water Act approval for Arch Coal's non-union Mingo Logan Coal Co. subsidiary to dump waste rock and dirt into 6.6 miles of Pigeonroost Branch, Oldhouse Branch and their tributaries. The agency said it would allow mining to continue on another portion of the site, burying nearly a mile of streams in the Seng Camp Creek watershed, because work there had already begun.
The EPA action, part of an Obama administration effort to reduce the impacts of strip mining, drew praise from environmental and citizen groups and harsh criticism from the mining industry and coalfield political leaders.
"It is a relief after all of these years that at least one agency has shown the will to follow the law and the science by stopping the destruction of Pigeonroost Hollow and Oldhouse Branch," said Joe Lovett, an environmental group lawyer who has challenged the Spruce Mine proposal for more than a dozen years. "Today, the EPA has helped to save these beautiful hollows for future generations.
"Unfortunately, the Spruce Mine's impacts are not unique," Lovett added. "Although we are grateful for EPA's action today, EPA must follow through by vetoing the scores of other corps permits that violate the Clean Water Act and that would allow mountaintop mines to lay waste to our mountains and streams."
Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link said the company remained "shocked and dismayed at EPA's continued onslaught with respect to this validly issued permit." Company lawyers had already challenged EPA's review of the permit, and that suit remains pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, along with members of West Virginia's congressional delegation, issued statements condemning EPA and predicting the courts would overrule the agency. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., called the EPA decision "a staged event to reward a core constituency that doesn't want any coal mining or coal plants, no matter the cost to West Virginia or our nation."