MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it's revoking a crucial water permit for West Virginia's largest mountaintop removal mine because it would irreparably damage the environment and threaten the health of nearby communities.
Assistant Administrator for Water Peter S. Silva said the agency was employing a rarely used veto power because Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County would use "destructive and unsustainable" mining practices.
The move formalizes an action the agency first threatened nine months ago.
Arch issued a statement saying it was "shocked and dismayed" by EPA's assault on a permit that was legitimately issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and vowed to continue fighting for the mine.
"We believe this decision will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investment," said company spokeswoman Kim Link.
The nearly 2,300-acre Spruce mine would bury 7 miles of streams, and EPA has previously ruled it would likely harm downstream water quality. The St. Louis-based coal company has planned to invest $250 million in the project, creating 250 jobs, but the mine has been delayed by lawsuits since it was permitted in 2007.
Mining already under way in a small portion of the Spruce site won't be affected by the EPA ruling, but it prohibits new, large-scale operations in other areas.
The ruling brought predictable responses from observers – praise from environmentalists and harsh words from the industry and its supporters, including many of the state's top elected officials.
"This news is devastating," said acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat. "The Spruce No. 1 permit was issued years ago and it's hard to understand how the EPA at this late stage could take such a drastic action."
Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a former governor whose administration sued EPA last year over its new scrutiny of mountaintop removal coal mining, called the ruling "fundamentally wrong" and "a shocking display of overreach" that will cost jobs.
But Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, called it "a strong commitment to the law, the science and the principles of environmental justice."
And Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said EPA is validating what her organization has long argued: "These types of mining operations are destroying our streams and forests, and nearby residents' health."
EPA said it was acting within its legal authority in revoking the permit and "using the best science" to protect water quality, wildlife and people.
"Coal and coal mining are part of our nation's energy future, and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation's waters," Silva said. "We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water."
The EPA said this is only the 13th time since 1972 that it has used its Clean Water Act veto authority, and the first time it's acted on a previously permitted mine. EPA says it reserves that power "for only unacceptable cases" and used it in 1978 to veto a previously permitted landfill in Miami.
National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said EPA's action threatens the certainty of all similar permits that have been issued. Spruce No. 1 went through a "robust 10-year review" process, he said, and the project has complied with every permit requirement.
Mountaintop removal is a highly efficient but particularly destructive form of strip mining that blasts mountains apart at the top to expose multiple seams of coal. Excess rock and rubble are dumped into nearby valleys, often burying streams.
EPA said it had urged Arch for more than a year to come up with a plan to mitigate environmental harm from the Spruce mine, but the company proposed no new configurations. Thursday's ruling prohibits Arch from dumping waste into streams "unless the company identifies an alternative mining design."
Last year, EPA and another company collaborated on a plan to halve the impact on water resources while simultaneously increasing coal production, Silva said.
Environmentalists had challenged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' authority to issue Clean Water Act permits for large mountaintop removal mines, and last March, EPA announced it would veto one issued for Spruce.
Arch countered that the EPA has no authority to revoke such a permit once it's been issued.
Public hearings on the EPA's plan set off a fierce battle last year.
In October, months after the state Department of Environmental Protection warned that litigation was imminent, West Virginia sued the EPA over its mountaintop mining policies. Since President Barack Obama took office, the flow of water quality permits for Appalachian mines has slowed to a trickle.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, another Democrat, fired off an angry letter to Obama on Thursday, declaring EPA's action wrong and unfair.
Manchin called EPA's retroactive action "an unprecedented power grab, period."
"This is not just an assault on the coal industry. It's an assault on every job market in the U.S. economy," Manchin said. "It might be West Virginia and the coal industry today. It will be your industry tomorrow."
EPA ruling: http://bit.ly/gNtpxW