U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overstepped its powers by setting up water-quality criteria for coal mining operations in Appalachia and that the agency infringed on the authority given to state regulators by federal clean water and surface mining acts.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a coal mining industry coalition against the EPA and Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Last year the EPA revised standards issued in April 2010 by tightening guidelines on the practice of dumping waste from surface mine blasting into Appalachian valley waterways.
The EPA had written that the fundamental premise of its new guidelines was that “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 a practicable alternative exists that is less damaging to the aquatic environment.”
The Associated Press reported that in 2011, aides for then-Gov. Joe Manchin filed a similar lawsuit targeting EPA policies adopted since President Barack Obama took office that are designed to limit the practice of burying streams under excess rock removed while extracting coal at mines.
Critics say that practice destroys the environment. The mining industry defends it as an efficient way to produce cheap power and employ thousands in well-paying jobs.
West Virginia's lawsuit was consolidated with the National Mining Association’s (NMA) complaint. The NMA denounced the guidelines as a “jobs destroyer” and hailed Judge Walton’s decision.
"It is now time to get miners back to work by allowing the state permitting agencies to do their jobs," the association said in a statement.
In 2011, Walton sided with the NMA in its challenge of a 2009 decision in which the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to coordinate reviews of backlogged permit applications for waste disposal at Appalachia mountaintop mining operations that raised serious environmental concerns.
And in March, another federal judge declared valid water pollution permits that the EPA had revoked for one of West Virginia’s largest mountaintop removal coal mines. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had issued the permits for the 2,300-acre Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County.