Mountaintop Coal Mining Schooled By Federal Judge

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Advocates for mountaintop coal mining lost a big one at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals last Friday, when Judge Brett Kavanaugh affirmed the review process that the EPA has been using to crack down on the practice, also known as mountaintop mining, mountaintop removal, or MTR. The practice consists of blowing off the tops of mountains to get at underlying coal seams, pushing the rubble off the side, and burying any neighboring streams.

The decision reverses a lower court ruling that sided with the states of Kentucky and West Virginia along with coal industry stakeholders, who argued that EPA illegally collaborated with the US Army Corps of Engineers on the crackdown. Go, Army!

mountaintop removal coal mining
Coal (cropped, altered): Jeffrey Beall.

Mountaintop Coal Mining: Talk Amongst Yourselves

We have a link to the mountaintop coal mining decision courtesy of Earthjustice (, which provides a thorough rundown of the legal pathway that took the issue to the Circuit Court of Appeals, but we’re most interested in the Court’s reasoning regarding the collaboration between EPA and the Corps.

Here goes:

In our view, EPA and the Corps acted within their statutory authority when they adopted the Enhanced Coordination Process.


After all, this kind of inter-agency consultation and coordination is commonplace and often desirable. Indeed, restricting such consultation and coordination would raise significant constitutional concerns.


Indeed, one of the main goals of any President, and his or her White House staff, is to ensure that such consultation and coordination occurs in the many disparate and far-flung parts of the Executive behemoth. The right hand should know what the left hand is doing.


Although this case concerned a regulatory function, we’re going to guess that the Court’s reasoning is going to play a role in firming up the ability of President Obama to roll ahead with his plans for taking executive action where appropriate and permitted under the Constitution.

In particular, it dovetails with the inter-agency coordination at work in at least two major interagency renewable energy initiatives under the Obama Administration, the AgStar livestock biogas initiative and the 2011 biofuel initiative, which has hooked up EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and the US Navy.

Both of these initiatives are notable in that they leverage the existing agricultural sector to create new jobs in rural areas and other underserved communities, but we’ll get to that angle in a minute.

Reactions to the Ruling

Our friends over at The Hill report that EPA’s reaction to the mountaintop coal mining decision was quite subdued, though we’re sure they were smiling on the inside.

The National Mining Association was similarly subdued, at least as far as its initial reaction goes. However, based on the statement CEO Hal Quinn issued last month in reaction to new EPA greenhouse gas regulations, our money is on something like this:

Today the president is meeting with billionaires and special interest elites to promote policies that will make our nation’s electricity supply more expensive and less reliable.

Meanwhile, the organization Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards collected statements from half a dozen environmental organizations that were quite a bit less subdued, with Earthjustice providing a representative sample:

The EPA did its job when it directed its staff to finally follow the law and science, and start protecting Appalachian waters and communities from mountaintop removal mining…The coal industry continually fights for free rein to blow up mountains and dump waste all over Appalachia, and we’re glad to see clean water and healthy communities triumph today.

What’s With Mountaintop Coal Mining?

Speaking of jobs, let’s pivot over and take a closer look at mountaintop coal mining in that regard.

For those of you new to the topic, mountaintop coal mining was formerly rare, but as underground and near-surface coal seams have run out the industry has turned to more destructive practices.

The practice became more widespread under the Bush/Cheney Administration (why are we not surprised?).

Under the Obama Administration, mountaintop coal mining has received more scrutiny and EPA has moved toward tighter regulation of the practice, using its authority under federal clean water protection laws.


Still, so far more than 500 mountains have been damaged or destroyed in West Virginia, Kentucky, and other parts of Appalachia, along with 2,000 miles of streams.

Ironically, although a key argument in favor of mountaintop coal mining is job creation and protection, increased mechanization in the industry has resulted in a bleed of coal mining jobs for decades.

There has actually been an uptick in coal jobs nationwide under the Obama Administration, but with natural gas and renewables pushing coal out of the US market, more mining activity is going to feed the export market.

That leaves us with the obvious question: why are we permanently destroying our nation’s natural heritage in order to fuel economic activity overseas?

Aside from the environmental impacts, coal mining has also been linked to economic malaise and public health impacts. It also  impedes efforts to diversify the region economically, particularly in the booming travel and outdoor recreation sectors.

For the record, coal-related activities such as coal washing and ash dumping haven’t helped much lately.

Adding insult to injury, the fuel we’re shipping out undermines our nation’s climate management goals, which right now seems to involve saving Miami.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3241 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey