CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In another significant legal victory for the coal industry, a federal judge on Friday refused to block a Clean Water Act permit for a mountaintop removal permit in Logan County.
U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers ruled against an effort by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition to stop the Reylas Surface Mine, proposed by Highland Mining, a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources.
Chambers said that scientific evidence clearly shows mountaintop removal is damaging water quality and aquatic life downstream from mining operations. But the judge said a previous appeals court ruling tied his hands, forcing him to defer to the Corps of Engineers' permit approval.
In a 31-page decision, Chambers made clear he was bound by a 2009 ruling in a case involving Aracoma Coal Co., in which the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said he overstepped his authority in throwing out four permits issued by the corps.
"This court must adhere to the guiding principles of deference under Aracoma in ruling on plaintiffs' challenges to the corps' decision, despite substantial scientific evidence contrary to that decision," Chambers wrote.
The judge defended the corps, which faced harsh criticism from citizen group lawyers, saying it was neither required nor practical for the agency to "retain experts in the myriad of issues which it confronts across the nation on a daily basis."
Instead, Chambers said, it was perfectly acceptable for the corps to rely on water quality determinations made separately by officials from the W.Va. Department of Environmental Protection, which processes water pollution discharge permits and signed off on the permit at issue.
The judge noted, however, growing concerns about mountaintop removal's effects, and the heated dispute between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DEP over how such mining should be regulated.
"Miles of West Virginia streams are being buried under valley fills covering hundreds of acres, dramatically altering the landscape and streams throughout Southern West Virginia," Chambers wrote. "The EPA and the WVDEP have been at loggerheads in evaluating these impacts and taking action to strike the balance between the state's economic interests in mining and its obligation to protect West Virginia's environment."
While the decision technically involves only one permit, the ruling also sets a standard for how other permit decisions might be made moving forward.
Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha, said the company was pleased with the ruling and hopes it "will bring some certainty" to the permitting process in West Virginia.
Officials from the corps could not immediately be reached for comment late Friday afternoon. A lawyer for the citizen groups declined comment.