We haven’t checked in on mountaintop removal in Appalachia recently, but we better catch up fast because there’s some huge news out of the federal courts. As reported by our friends over at the West Virginia Gazette, this past Tuesday a federal judge ruled that the US Environmental Protection Agency was within its rights to put the kibosh on a permit for the massive Spruce No. 1 Mine mountaintop removal operation planned by the company Arch Coal.
That’s not the only hammer to come down on coal within the past week or so.
Another Blow For Mountaintop Removal
For those of you new to the topic, mountaintop removal refers to the practice of literally blowing up the tops of mountains, removing the coal, and pushing the rubble off the side where it typically buries streams.
The stream angle comes into play with the Clean Water Act, which EPA leveraged to suspend Spruce No. 1 back in 2009.
That’s when CleanTechnica picked up the thread, and we also took note in 2011 when EPA made a final determination that Spruce No. 1 could not move forward.
The case has been winding through the courts ever since, with obvious implications for the entire mountaintop removal industry. Ken Ward, Jr. over at the West Virginia Gazette reports on the latest Spruce No. 1 development:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday won another major legal victory in the long saga of one of the largest mountaintop removal mining permits in West Virginia history.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson concluded that the agency’s veto of a Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County was “reasonable, supported by the record, and based on considerations within EPA’s purview.”
Mountaintop Removal Not The Only Problem…
Did you catch that thing about a veto? The EPA action was all the more significant because the agency vetoed a permit that had previously been issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Combine that with the Army’s stellar work on promoting renewable energy and sustainability under the Obama Administration, and you’re looking at a Corps of Engineers that isn’t falling over itself to grant more mountaintop removal permits.
Ward also adds this context:
The decision comes after a decision in March by the U.S. Supreme Court not to take up Arch Coal’s challenge of EPA’s legal authority to veto the permit in the first place, following a June victory for EPA in a case over new water quality guidance for the Appalachian coal industry, and as citizen groups continue to push for the Obama EPA to take more concrete actions to stop the environmental damage scientists say mountaintop removal causes.
The other bad news for coal this week is also courtesy of Mr. Ward and the WV Gazette (here’s that link again).
As reported elsewhere, Ward draws attention to the skyrocketing surge in cases of progressive massive fibrosis, aka black lung, among coal miners in Appalachia. The disease had been virtually eradicated by the turn of the century, even among still-active miners with at least 25 years in the coal fields.
According to Ward, health officials believe that changes in the composition of coal dust have been a contributing factor.
As for layoffs in the coal mining industry, the latest bad news (also reported by Ward) comes from Patriot Coal, which gave 60-day potential layoff notices to 360 employees at its Danville, West Virginia operations.
It’s pretty easy to blame EPA for that one, what with the new coal power plant regulations and all, but Ward cites industry watchers who put it thusly:
…experts cite a variety of more important factors, with competition from cheap natural gas and a long-predicted depletion of the best and easiest-to-reach coal reserves chief among them.
Ward keeps up with coal industry news on a near-daily basis and if you want to follow him, you can catch him on Twitter @kenwardjr.