CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal appeals court Friday overturned a ruling requiring more extensive environmental reviews of mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining in Appalachia that blasts away whole peaks.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to issue Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines without more extensive reviews.
The decision tossed out a lower-court ruling that had blocked permits for four mountaintop-removal mines in West Virginia.
The appeals decision was 2-to-1. The dissenting judge said the majority opinion was wrong and that the Corps of Engineers had failed to fully assess the impact of the proposed mining.
The decision could have effects throughout the coalfields, including in Kentucky.
The ruling is a blow to environmentalists and coalfield residents who oppose the highly efficient but destructive practice that exposes thin, shallow coal seams. Rocks, dirt and other debris typically are dumped into valleys containing sections of streams, which is why clean water rules are involved.
The decision is a big win for mine operators. The coal industry says most of the nearly 130 million tons of coal produced at mountaintop mines in Appalachia goes to generate electricity for 24.7 million U.S. customers. Moreover, mountaintop mines employ some 14,000 people across West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Mountaintop permits have slowed to a trickle since March 2007, when the Corps was ordered by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers to rescind several permits. The appeals court overturned Chambers' ruling.
Environmentalists to huddle
"It's Friday the 13th, what do you expect?" said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "We are deeply disappointed."
Earthjustice, whose attorneys handled the case involved in Friday's decision, said the ruling will allow coal companies to mine without properly minimizing stream destruction or doing adequate environmental studies.
Appalachia could see up to 90 new mountaintop-removal mines as a result, the group said in a news release.
Earthjustice called on President Barack Obama's administration to curb mountaintop removal mining.
Keating said the environmental groups involved in the case plan to meet to figure out their next move.
The groups could appeal to the entire appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Corps of Engineers is reviewing the decision to determine how it affects the agency's process, spokeswoman Peggy Noel said.
"We'll follow the guidance that the court tells us to do," Noel said. "Public health and safety is a top priority of the Corps."
West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney and Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor praised the decision, saying it brings stability to the industry that's facing sluggish demand because of the weak economy.
"It's so reassuring to have the stability of the appeals court that recognizes the professionalism of the Corps of Engineers," Raney said. "They really protected the jobs of the miners."
Mine firm welcomes ruling
Appalachian mining giant Massey Energy Co. also praised the ruling, which directly involved several permits issued for the Virginia-based company's mines.
"This should put an end to much of the uncertainty regarding the issuance of surface mine permits," Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said in an e-mail.
Mine operators including Massey, the nation's fourth-largest coal producer, have been bracing for the better part of two years for potential production cuts stemming from an inability to get permits.
"Naturally people will be looking at what it says for environmental policy going forward. I think it's also potentially very significant economic news and very good news for the region," National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said.
Coal companies have been cutting production, closing mines and laying off workers across the country amid anemic demand, particularly for utility coal overseas and coking coal for steel mill blast furnaces. At least 1,310 jobs have been trimmed at Appalachian mines in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, American consumers are facing higher electric rates as 2009 coal delivery contracts that were signed last year take effect. When those contracts were reached, prices had risen as much as double from the year before.
"We think this could easily free up more supply," Popovich said. That could help bring down fuel costs for electricity.