Permit for coal mine in Kentucky blocked

September 5, 2013

A permit that was issued to Leeco Inc., a subsidiary of James River Coal, for its 305-ha (756-acre) Stacy Branch Mine in Kentucky was temporarily blocked on the orders of U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell. The order also barred Leeco from filling any streams at the site, which is near the Perry County town of Vicco.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Sierra Club had sought an emergency order from Russell to block work at the mine. Leeco Inc. has not started mining at the site but had planned to begin work on a valley fill, the Kentucky Herald-Leader reported.

Russell granted the injunction on Aug. 30 and said it would stay in place until a further ruling from Russell about whether the injunction should continue while the environmental groups ask the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a decision allowing Leeco to mine at Stacy Branch, said Jennifer Chavez, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents the groups.

It could take months to decide the appeal.

Leeco first applied for a permit to mine a mountain north of Vicco and Sassafras in 2007 with an initial proposal that included six valley fills, effecting more than 6.4 km (4 miles) of streams. The company revised the proposal after nearby residents and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency objected and in 2012, the the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a permit for the mine that included only one valley fill and would affect 5.5 km (3.4 miles) of stream.

The environmental groups and three local residents challenged the permit in court. They argued that the Corps had erred on several fronts, including that it had failed to assess the potential harm to human health from the mine.

The groups cited a growing number of studies and reports that have found correlation between surface mines and health problems among nearby residents, including birth defects, cancer and heart problems — perhaps linked to metals and other pollutants released by the mining, the Kentucky Herald-Leader reported.

Leeco argued that studies have not documented mining as a direct cause of such health problems.

On Aug. 23, Russell ruled that the environmental groups made a compelling argument, but that under current standards, the Corps of Engineers is not required to weigh the cumulative health impact of an entire mining operation.

The agency only has to judge whether permits properly control the discharge of certain pollutants, and it did in the case of the Stacy Branch mine, the judge ruled.

The environmental groups argue that Russell erred in his interpretation of the Corps of Engineers’ duty to consider the health impacts of surface mining.

The groups said the potential damage to their interests through the destruction of streams by mining through them or burying them outweighs what Leeco could lose if the permit is put on hold during the appeal.

Leeco’s attorneys, Kevin McGuire and Robert McLusky, said the company will oppose an injunction that would block work at the mine during an appeal.


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