The National Mining Association said EPA's action "threatens the certainty" of all Clean Water Act "dredge-and-fill" permits "weakening the trust U.S. businesses and workers need to make investments and secure jobs."
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the corps generally reviews and approves these permits, which allow mining operators to bury streams with millions of tons of waste rock and dirt. Congress gave the EPA broad authority to step in and block such waste dumping if it believes the damage is too great or could have been avoided.
Environmental groups have been trying to stop the Spruce Mine since 1998, when it was proposed as a 3,113-acre extension of Arch's Dal-Tex Mine that would have buried more than 10 miles of streams. Then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked the permit in 1999, putting more than 300 United Mine Workers members at Dal-Tex out of work. Since then, Arch has transferred the site to its non-union operations and the Spruce Mine has undergone one of the most detailed environmental studies ever in the coal industry.
Corps officials in January 2007 issued a permit for a scaled-back version, a 2,300-acre operation that would bury more than seven miles of streams. The mine eventually would employ 250 workers and mine about 44 million tons of coal over about 15 years.
EPA officials have questioned the Spruce Mine from the beginning, and in a comment letter submitted to the corps under President George W. Bush in 2006 complained about the potential impacts and said more changes in the operation were needed.
In a 99-page final decision document issued Thursday morning, EPA said, "there appear to be additional practicable alternative project configurations and practices that would significantly reduce and/or avoid anticipated environmental and water quality impacts to Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch."
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said in a statement Thursday, "Although we do not represent the workers at the Spruce Mine, every job is precious in the coalfields and we don't like to see any lost.
"It is truly unfortunate that the EPA and the mine operator could not come to an agreement that would allow many of those jobs to be saved," Roberts said.
"As we move forward from this day, we must be about the work of creating good, safe coal jobs in the coalfield communities, not eliminating them," Roberts said. "We believe that can be done within a reasonable regulatory framework and with a willingness on the part of the government to share that goal."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.