Despite a recent study showing that mountaintop removal coal mining—in which coal companies literally remove the tops of mountains, dump the tons of debris into nearby streams and then strip mine the underlying coal—causes children born nearby to suffer higher rates of birth defects, a federal district judge last week held that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could not revoke a permit for one such large project.
Arch Coal had received approval for the permit from the EPA in 2007, during the administration of President George W. Bush, but EPA in January 2011 revoked the permit, marking the first time the agency had ever done so. EPA concluded that the Spruce No. 1 mine, which would be the largest mountaintop removal in West Virginia history, would have dumped 110 million cubic yards of coal mine waste into streams; buried more than six miles of high-quality streams in one county; polluted downstream waters as a result of buried streams; and degraded area watersheds, thus killing wildlife and adversely impacting other species.
Arch Coal sued the EPA for the permit revocation, and Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama in 2011, held that EPA had exceeded its authority. Jackson found that the statute contemplated a single permitting process with a definite endpoint, so that once EPA issues a permit it cannot later revoke it; otherwise companies would never know if a given permit was truly final.
The ruling’s impact on future EPA decisions regarding mountaintop removal, including more than 100 pending mountaintop removal permits, is yet to be seen, although the knowledge that permits cannot be revoked may provoke deep thought before their issuance.
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