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Mountaintop Removal
The New York Times, January 14, 2011

Agency Revokes Permit for Major Coal Mining Project
By John M. Broder

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency revoked the permit for one of the nation’s largest mountaintop-removal coal mining projects on Thursday, saying the mine would have done unacceptable damage to rivers, wildlife and communities in West Virginia.

Arch Coal’s proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County has been the subject of controversy since the Bush administration approved its construction in 2007, issuing a permit required under the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists and local residents strongly opposed the sprawling project, and the Obama administration moved last year to rescind the permit, prompting lawsuits by West Virginia and the coal company.

The agency’s action on Thursday is certain to provoke an outcry from West Virginia politicians, the coal industry and other businesses that have raised objections to what they consider economically damaging regulatory overreach by the E.P.A.

The coal mining project would have involved dynamiting the tops off mountains over an area of 2,278 acres to get at the rich coal deposits beneath. The resulting rubble, known as spoil, would be dumped into nearby valleys and streams, killing fish, salamanders and other wildlife. The agency said that disposal of the mining material would also pollute the streams and endanger human health and the environment downstream.

The agency said it was using its authority under the Clean Water Act to revoke the permit, an action it has taken only 12 times in the past 40 years. The agency said in a release that it reserved this authority only for “unacceptable cases.”

“The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend,” said Peter S. Silva, the agency’s assistant administrator for water. “Coal and coal mining are part of our nation’s energy future, and E.P.A. has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation’s waters. We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water.”

An official of Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, said the company would continue to challenge the federal action in court.

“We remain shocked and dismayed at E.P.A.’s continued onslaught with respect to this validly issued permit,” said Kim Link, the company’s spokeswoman. “Absent court intervention, E.P.A.’s final determination to veto the Spruce permit blocks an additional $250 million investment and 250 well-paying American jobs.”

“Furthermore, we believe this decision will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investment,” she added, “because every business possessing or requiring a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act will fear similar overreaching by the E.P.A. It’s a risk many businesses cannot afford to take.”

She was referring to the provision of federal law under which the permit was originally issued and then revoked.

Anticipating the agency’s decision, a group of regulated industries wrote to the White House this week asking that the mine be allowed to proceed, and seeking clarification on when the administration intended to use its Clean Water Act authority to block industrial and agricultural projects.

Groups including the National Realtors Association, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association wrote to Nancy Sutley, the chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, asking that the Spruce Mine permit be approved.

The groups said in their letter that if the agency revoked the coal mining permit, “every similarly valid permit held by any entity — businesses, public works agencies and individual citizens — will be in increased regulatory limbo and potentially subject to the same unilateral, after-the-fact revocation.”

“The implications could be staggering,” they added, “reaching all areas of the U.S. economy including but not limited to the agriculture, home building, mining, transportation and energy sectors.”

An agency official said that though the current design for the Spruce No. 1 project had been rejected, the company was free to submit a new proposal, as long as it addressed the potential environmental harm.

Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who until recently was the state’s governor, issued a blistering statement opposing the agency’s determination to kill the mining project.

“Today’s E.P.A. decision is not just fundamentally wrong, it is an unprecedented act by the federal government that will cost our state and our nation even more jobs during the worst recession in this country’s history,” Mr. Manchin said. “While the E.P.A. decision hurts West Virginia today, it has negative ramifications for every state in our nation, and I strongly urge every senator and every member Congress to voice their opposition.”

He added, “It goes without saying, such an irresponsible regulatory step is not only a shocking display of overreach, it will have a chilling effect on investments and our economic recovery. I plan to do everything in my power to fight this decision.”

Environmentalists, on the other hand, praised the revocation of the permit. “We breathe a huge sigh of relief today,” said Janet Keating, president of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, in a statement, adding that the move “halts the destruction of Pigeon Roost Hollow,” a wooded valley where much of the mining debris was to be dumped.

Ms. Keating said the decision was a milestone in the debate over mountaintop-removal coal mining. “Spruce No. 1 is the only individual permit to have undergone a full environmental impact statement,” she said. “The science completely validates what we have been saying for more than a decade: These types of mining operations are destroying our streams and forests and nearby residents’ health, and even driving entire communities to extinction.”

Tom Zeller Jr. contributed reporting.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton