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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Late last week, coalfield political leaders declared victory in their efforts to stop the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency crackdown on mountaintop removal.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who as governor sued the EPA over the crackdown, said Thursday's federal court ruling against the agency marked "a great day for West Virginia."
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said the ruling is a "victory for the working men and women in the coalfields of West Virginia" and urged the EPA not to appeal.
"Know that you are wrong," Rahall said in a statement. "Now is the time for you to right the wrongs."
Manchin, Rahall and the coal industry celebrated the decision by U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton to throw out the EPA's plan for more hands-on involvement in reviewing a backlog of mining permit applications in West Virginia and Kentucky.
However, Walton has yet to rule on the bigger long-term issue in the case, and the EPA retains legal authority to veto or block key Clean Water Act permits that mining companies need for new mountaintop removal operations.
"So far, the EPA is the only governmental agency that has been willing to acknowledge these threats to our land and people," said Suzanne Tallichet, vice chairwoman of the group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
EPA officials have not said they will appeal Walton's initial ruling but indicated in a prepared statement that the agency has no plans to stop trying to reduce mining impacts on the environment and public health.
"We will work under the law to meet our Clean Water Act responsibilities to keep Appalachian streams clean for drinking, fishing and swimming and to assure environmentally responsible coal mining proceeds," said EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara.
Walton's ruling confirmed what the judge previously had indicated he believed: that the EPA had exceeded its Clean Water Act Section 404 authority to provide oversight of how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reviews and approves "dredge-and-fill" permits. Mine operators need these permits to bury streams with waste rock and dirt produced by blowing up mountains to reach coal seams.
Two years ago, the EPA had created what it called "enhanced coordination procedures," to work with the corps and companies to reduce impacts from proposed coal-mining operations. The EPA also wrote a formula for deciding which in a backlog of pending permits would be subject to increased agency review through these coordination procedures.
The EPA actions were meant as a way for agency officials to get more involved early on in examining permit applications being considered by the corps, rather than waiting until the corps approved such projects and then objecting to the permit approvals.
Industry officials, along with state regulators in West Virginia and Kentucky, said the EPA's involvement exceeded its Clean Water Act authority. They also argued the agency was illegally adding new permit restrictions without first seeking public input on the changes.
In a 19-page ruling, Walton agreed with those complaints. He said Congress clearly made the corps "the principal player" in reviewing stream-filling permits and that lawmakers allowed EPA involvement only in "limited circumstances."