But at Alpha's request, Chambers did block an effort by citizen groups to argue that the mine would add to existing public health problems recent scientific papers have linked to living near mountaintop-removal mining. The judge rejected an effort by Alpha to block University of Maryland biologist Margaret Palmer, a top researcher on mining-related water quality issues, from testifying.
While the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal slowed the issuance of new strip-mining permits across Appalachia, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given its blessing to some corps-issued Clean Water Act "dredge-and-fill" permits and not stepped in to block others, such as the one for Highland Reylas.
During Tuesday's opening day of an expected weeklong trial, University of Tennessee hydro-geologist John Tyner explained what he said were major weaknesses in the way corps officials considered the Alpha mine's potential to create selenium runoff that could be toxic to aquatic life downstream.
Tyner said the corps allowed Alpha to rely on one set of coal-seam samples that predicted no selenium runoff, despite the fact that readily available data indicates the mine site would likely generate selenium.
"I believe that's an improper extrapolation," Tyner said. "It's worse than useless. I think it's misleading."
Citizen groups also argue that the corps wrongly concluded other Alpha mines in the area have not caused selenium problems, noting that streams in those areas already have high levels of the toxic pollutant.
Bernhardt walked Chambers through a list of previous scientific papers that have shown impaired aquatic life -- measured through reduced diversity of insects -- downstream from mining and valley fill sites. Bernhardt said studies have clearly shown this impairment related to high levels of electrical conductivity, caused by sulfates and other mining pollutants.
"The weight of the evidence is very strong," Bernhardt said.
Lovett asked if any peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published that contradict this conclusion. "Not that I'm aware of," Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt said that, in approving the Alpha permit, corps officials mentioned only one scientific paper about mining damage, a major U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study by agency biologist Greg Pond.
Corps officials cited that paper only to note that Alpha disagreed with Pond's conclusions, but Bernhardt said the agency cited no peer-reviewed research that supported Alpha's contention.
Lovett asked Bernhardt if the corps could have found a peer-reviewed paper that supported the company's argument. "Not that I'm aware of," Bernhardt replied.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.