Friday, October 07, 2011

Judge says EPA lacks authority to impose stricter rules on strip mines, but leaves rules in place

A federal judge ruled Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have authority under the Clean Water Act to establish stricter standards for mountaintop removal coal mines, giving the coal industry a first-round win in what is likely to be an extended court fight. The ruling allows the agency's new guidelines to reduce water pollution from surface mining to remain in place, at least until legal arguments about that are heard next June.

"EPA retains legal authority to veto or block key Clean Water Act permits that mining companies need for new mountaintop removal operations,"Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports.

In his ruling, District Judge Reggie Walton of Washington, D.C., said the agency "exceeded its Clean Water Act authority" by creating the new reviewing process for "dredge-and-fill" permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers and by creating an assessment procedure to decide which mining permits needed more review. Walton said the EPA has an "oversight role" but went too far.

When the EPA started issuing new permit reviews last year, the National Mining Association, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the governors of Kentucky and West Virginia filed a joint lawsuit to challenge the EPA's decision, claiming the agency had started a "war on coal." While the industry uses mountaintop removal because it's efficient and local and state leaders tout the jobs it creates, there is growing consensus the practice causes irreversible damage to forests, water quality and communities, and that a recent scientific study links higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses to those living near mountaintop removal sites, Ward reports.

EPA called the ruling a "procedural decision," and environmental groups that intervened in the case said it has "no effect on the new EPA water quality guidance." NMA President Hal Quinn told Ward the decision "affirms our view that the Congress did not grant EPA sweeping powers under the Clean Water Act" to delay permits and "usurp" the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for discharges into waters of the United States. (Read more)

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