WASHINGTON (July 9, 2004) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can no longer allow coal companies in West Virginia to bury free-flowing mountain streams with mining waste using a "streamlined" general permit, in the wake of yesterday's court victory by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch. (Judge Goodwin's decision is available here.)
"Go tell it on the mountain: the Bush administration's rubber stamp used for destroying West Virginia's waterways has been revoked," said Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney in NRDC's clean water program. "The court agrees that the Clean Water Act doesn't allow the Corps of Engineers to issue short-cut permits so that coal companies can bury Appalachian streams under mining waste."
Mountaintop removal is a process in which coal companies blow up mountaintops to access thin seams of coal beneath the surface. Although the companies replace some of the debris on the mountaintop after removing the coal, they dump the rest of the rocks and dirt in nearby valleys. These "valley fills" bury streams under tens of thousands of tons of waste rock and dirt, killing all aquatic life below. For years, the Corps of Engineers has granted coal companies permits to destroy more than 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams under the nationwide permitting program (NWP 21), which is intended only for small fills that have "minimal adverse environmental effects."
U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin sided with the environmental groups, ruling that the Corps' nationwide permitting of valley fills violates the Clean Water Act. Not only is the Corps barred from authorizing any future valley fills under NWP 21 in West Virginia, but the judge also ordered the agency to revoke previous authorization for 11 permitted mountaintop removal mining operations that would have destroyed more than 26 miles of Appalachian streams in the state.
"This huge court victory blocks the valley fills already authorized by the Corps and prevents the agency from authorizing any new fills," said Joe Lovett, Executive Director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "This decision won't stop mining in West Virginia, but it will finally force the Corps -- and Big Coal -- to comply with the law."
NRDC is represented by Joe Lovett, of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and Jim Hecker, of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.