The suits aim to undo the Obama EPA's tougher permit reviews and new water quality guidance that agency officials say are designed to "significantly reduce the harmful consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations."
While the coal industry favors mountaintop removal's efficiency, and local political leaders praise the jobs provided, there is a growing scientific consensus that the practice is causing widespread and irreversible damage to the region's forests, water quality and communities. A series of studies by West Virginia University have also linked living near mountaintop removal mines to higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.
Coal industry lawyers and the other plaintiffs allege that EPA exceeded its authority, and that it put in place new permit requirements without first gathering public input on the changes.
In a 19-page ruling, Walton -- a graduate of West Virginia State College -- ruled that EPA exceeded its Clean Water Act authority when it created a new "enhanced coordination process" for reviewing "dredge-and-fill" permits issued by the Corps of Engineers and a related procedure for assessing which mining permits deserved more scrutiny. Walton concluded that EPA has an oversight role in that permit process, but that the Obama plan went too far.
"Although the administrator of the EPA is tasked with administering the Clean Water Act, the administrator's authority is subject to limitations," Walton wrote.
Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said his group was "gratified" by the judge's decision.
"His ruling affirms our view that the Congress did not grant EPA sweeping powers under the Clean Water Act to arbitrarily delay permits or develop a new permitting process which usurps the role of the corps," Quinn said in a prepared statement. "With this decision, coal communities can get back to the business of producing affordable energy for Americans and put more Americans back to work."
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who ordered the state to sue EPA when he was governor, said, "This is a great day for West Virginia. I'm very hopeful that this will put us on the path of receiving the permits that are needed to provide the energy and the jobs not just for West Virginia, but for this entire country."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.