Groups File Contempt Motion Against Corps

WASHINGTON (December 6, 2004) -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has violated a court order halting the agency from allowing coal companies to bury streams with mining waste, according to a contempt motion filed last Friday by environmental groups. The groups filed the motion in federal district court in Charleston, West Virginia.

"The Army Corps has sunk to a new low, brazenly disregarding a direct order from a federal district court to stop burying streams and start complying with the Clean Water Act," said Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Corps has allowed the mining industry to obliterate hundreds of miles of Appalachian waterways, and apparently a court order wasn't enough to stop them."

The district court ruled in July that the Corps' "streamlined" general permits authorizing coal companies to dump debris in waterways violated the Clean Water Act. The court ordered the Corps to "suspend all existing [general permit] authorizations for valley fills and surface impoundments in the Southern District of West Virginia on which construction had not commenced as of July 8, 2004." Nevertheless, in a status report filed with the court on November 24, the Corps disclosed that it is continuing to allow coal companies to bury streams with rubble as long the companies had started any work, such as land clearing or road building, anywhere on the mining site. The Corps told the court it has authorized at least 22 mining operations to continue to dump mining waste, but did not provide details about the number or location of buried streams.

"The Corp's refusal to obey Judge Goodwin's ruling is a perfect example of how the coal industry controls the regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect the people and the environment," said Julia Bonds, community outreach coordinator for Coal River Mountain Watch. "The government has allowed coal barons to abuse Appalachians for more than 130 years, and it's long past time to put a stop to it."

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. In their motion, the environmental groups asked the court to find the Corps in civil contempt and declare that any of the mining waste dumping that has occurred since the court's July order is a violation of the Clean Water Act.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, announced at a September 2 mining industry meeting that the Bush administration would appeal the July court ruling. The court of appeals has not yet set a schedule for filing briefs or hearing oral argument for the appeal.

"This smells like another payback from the administration to the coal industry for its huge donations to the Bush presidential campaign," said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Huntington, West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "The Corps and the administration obviously have no regard for the nation's environmental laws. They will apparently attempt anything to continue this culturally destructive and ecologically insane mining method."

The environmental groups that filed the motion -- Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch and NRDC -- are represented in the litigation by Joe Lovett of Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and Jim Hecker of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.