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Judge rules in favor of coal in Obama mine crackdown

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge dealt a blow Thursday to the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal coal mining, ruling that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's more detailed permit reviews overstepped the agency's Clean Water Act authority.

The decision, by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, is a victory for the coal industry and for coalfield political leaders and coal-state regulators who challenged the EPA actions.

"We won," said Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. "This was a 100 percent victory."

But the ruling decides only part of the case, and leaves standing EPA's new water quality guidance aimed at reducing pollution from the region's coal-mining operations. Legal arguments on the EPA guidance were scheduled to be heard in late October, but have been delayed until next June.

EPA officials issued a statement calling the court ruling a "procedural decision" that would not stop the agency's efforts.

"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 the statement from EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara<co both>. "We will work with our federal and state partners to protect the clean water, healthy watersheds, and jobs on which coalfield communities depend."

Environmental groups that intervened in the case downplayed the ruling,noting it has no effect on the new EPA water quality guidance.

"While the coal industry may have succeeded in part of one lawsuit againstgovernment agencies, we will continue to support the EPA in their role protecting US families, waters and local communities, and ensure that those protections become stronger," said Ed Hopkins, Director of the SierraClub's Environmental Quality Program. "We will continue working to protectmountains and streams, even as the coal industry tries to continue destroying them."

In the case, Walton is hearing combined challenges of EPA's permit crackdown filed by the National Mining Association, WVDEP, Kentucky state officials and several individual mining operators.

The suits aim to undo the Obama EPA's tougher permit reviews and new water quality guidance that agency officials say are designed to "significantly reduce the harmful consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations."

While the coal industry favors mountaintop removal's efficiency, and local political leaders praise the jobs provided, there is a growing scientific consensus that the practice is causing widespread and irreversible damage to the region's forests, water quality and communities. A series of studies by West Virginia University have also linked living near mountaintop removal mines to higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.

Coal industry lawyers and the other plaintiffs allege that EPA exceeded its authority, and that it put in place new permit requirements without first gathering public input on the changes.

In a 19-page ruling, Walton -- a graduate of West Virginia State College -- ruled that EPA exceeded its Clean Water Act authority when it created a new "enhanced coordination process" for reviewing "dredge-and-fill" permits issued by the Corps of Engineers and a related procedure for assessing which mining permits deserved more scrutiny. Walton concluded that EPA has an oversight role in that permit process, but that the Obama plan went too far.

"Although the administrator of the EPA is tasked with administering the Clean Water Act, the administrator's authority is subject to limitations," Walton wrote.

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said his group was "gratified" by the judge's decision.

"His ruling affirms our view that the Congress did not grant EPA sweeping powers under the Clean Water Act to arbitrarily delay permits or develop a new permitting process which usurps the role of the corps," Quinn said in a prepared statement. "With this decision, coal communities can get back to the business of producing affordable energy for Americans and put more Americans back to work."

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who ordered the state to sue EPA when he was governor, said, "This is a great day for West Virginia. I'm very hopeful that this will put us on the path of receiving the permits that are needed to provide the energy and the jobs not just for West Virginia, but for this entire country."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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