On Tuesday a federal judge threw out a federal guidance that aimed to reduce water pollution from Appalachian coal mining operations. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority under federal water protections and strip mining laws when it issued the water quality guidelines. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Glynis Board has this story.
On Tuesday a federal judge threw out a federal guidance that aimed to reduce water pollution from Appalachian coal mining operations. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority under federal water protections and strip mining laws when it issued the water quality guidelines.
The EPA's premise of its new guidelines: "no discharge of dredged or fill material may be permitted" under any of three conditions: if the nation's waters would be "significantly degraded"; if it causes or contributes to violations of a state's water quality standard; or if less damaging alternative exists.
In Judge Waltonís conclusions, he said,
ìHow to best strike a balance between, on the one hand, the need to preserve the verdant landscapes and natural resources of Appalachia and, on the other hand, the economic role that coal mining plays in the region is not a question for the Court to decide."
He concluded, ìthat the EPA has overstepped its statutory authority under the [Clean Water Act] and the [Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act], and infringed on the authority afforded state regulators by those statutes.î
Sen. Joe Manchin as well as Representatives Shelly Moore Capito, David McKinley and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin all commended the ruling as a ìwin for West Virginia.î
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett is also applauding the ruling.
ìThis regulation was unfairly put forth by the EPA,î Bissett says. ìIt only involves coal mining; it only involves West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. I think the great news is that a court in DC, sort of the home court, if you will, of the EPA, agreed with us and said yes this is illegal, this is unfair, and you canít single out two states and one industry.î
ìThe good news is that the pipeline, if you will,î Bissett adds. ìThe obstruction has been removed at this point so itís our hope with great speed now we can create some new opportunities that will hopefully put miners back to work. Especially in eastern KY where weíve seen a recent layoffs and a market downturn thatís created a lot of stress for everyone.î
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman also considers the ruling a ìwin,î saying to the Associated Press that prior to EPA's most recent guidelines, West Virginia was issuing up to 400 mining permits per year. But that slowed to about 100 in 2011 and nearly 700 additional permits are in limbo.
The Sierra Clubís Director of Environmental Quality, Ed Hopkins, says he wasnít surprised by the ruling, given Waltonís recent record in cases involving mountain top removal permits.
ìItís important to note that the Courtís ruling did not undermine the science concerning the need for conductivity standards and it did not prevent the EPA from using other administrative tools to achieve the same end, such as a rule making. We would like to see the EPA undertake a rule making to ensure that water quality is protected from mountain top removal mining,î Hopkins says.
While Judge Waltonís decision was being debated, the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board, which hears appeals regarding the issuance of permits, made another ruling. This one ruled in favor of a challenge to a permit for the Patriot Mining Companyís surface mine near Morgantown. Coal ash and other forms of coal combustion waste are intended to be disposed there.
Hopkins agreed with the boardís ruling citing that the DEPís permit wasnít strong enough to protect water quality in the area. Hopkins hopes the decision will open the door to challenge other permits that are not specific enough given recent scientific water quality studies.
ìA lot of science has been done recently on conductivity by university researchers,î Hopkins says. ìThat research was the basis for much of the decision by the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board. It has become very apparent thanks to this research that high levels of conductivity and sulfates and total dissolve solids impairs water quality downstream of valley fills.î
Patriot Mining Companyís told other media outlets it intends to dump between 1,000 and 10,000 tons of coal waste per acre of mined area, which is listed at 225 acres in the challenged permit.