Coal-state politicians and industry officials pounced on Jackson's ruling, proclaiming it a victory for those states and confirmation of an overreach of the federal government's authority.
It was one of several setbacks this year for the EPA in Washington. Last month, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton ruled that the agency overstepped its authority by setting up water-quality criteria for Appalachian strip mines. That ruling said the authority belongs to state regulators under existing clean-water and surface-mining laws.
The EPA appealed the Spruce No. 1 ruling in July, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection filed paperwork indicating that it, too, will file a brief in the case. Arch, meanwhile, has until Sept. 4 to file a response.
Mountaintop removal is a highly efficient but particularly destructive form of strip mining that blasts apart mountain ridge tops to expose multiple coal seams. The resulting rock and debris is dumped in streams, creating so-called valley fills. Spruce No. 1 would have buried nearly 7 miles of streams.
In its appeal, the EPA said that while one section of the Clean Water Act lets the corps issue permits for the dumping of fill material, another gives EPA the unambiguous right to "prohibit, deny, restrict or withdraw specification of fill disposal sites.''
That power was created in a legislative compromise the EPA says was intended to let the agency do its job and prevent unacceptable environmental damage. The EPA says it can invoke that authority before, during or after the corps' permitting process.
Should the court determine that the language of the Clean Water Act is vague, the agency argues, "it should uphold EPA's interpretation of the statute as reasonable and permissible.''
Alternatively, it asks the appeals court to send the case back to Jackson for a hearing on whether the EPA's actions were arbitrary and capricious.
No oral arguments have yet been scheduled.