By Jess Mancini
West Virginia's congressional delegation has railed against an appeals court decision upholding the Environmental Protection Agency's retroactive veto of a permit for a Logan County coal mine.
Environmental groups praised the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia on Tuesday reversed a district court ruling last year that said the EPA overstepped its authority by rescinding the permit for the Spruce Mine, a mountaintop removal mine.
"Today marks a major milestone in the fight to end the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
The Spruce Mine was the largest mountaintop removal permit ever proposed in West Virginia history, and its valley fills would have buried more than six miles of streams, she said.
"Today's ruling would grant EPA staggering authority to revoke clean water permits after they have already been issued, causing enormous uncertainty, not only in coal mining but all industry," Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said.
Rep Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also said the decision gives the EPA unprecedented authority. The court decision undercuts the Clean Water Act from which the permit was originally authorized.
"Today's decision would open the floodgates to disrupting coal mining in West Virginia and elsewhere by granting the EPA unprecedented and seemingly limitless authority over Clean Water Act 404 permits," Rahall said. "The court, in this decision, gives license to the EPA to retroactively veto any Clean Water Act 404 permit 'whenever' the Administrator deems necessary, rendering all such permits for any range of industrial or construction activities throughout the country completely meaningless."
The decision highlights what Congress is against in "President Obama's war on coal," Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said.
"Unfortunately, the decision was the wrong one and will deeply affect hardworking West Virginians. The Environmental Protection Agency has continued to overstep its bounds in its efforts to implement the president's anti-energy policies," she said. "Not only will this ruling cost West Virginians hundreds of jobs, but it begs the question: Who is safe? If the EPA can take back a permit from a coal mine in West Virginia, they can do the same to any business in America."
Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, representing the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Coal River Mountain Watch, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, also issued statements.
"Today's decision upholds essential protection for all Americans granted by the Clean Water Act," Emma Cheuse, an Earthjustice attorney, said. "Communities in Appalachia can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that EPA always has the final say to stop devastating permits for mountaintop removal mining. Now, we just need EPA to take action to protect more communities and mountain streams before they are gone for good."
The Corps of Engineers has overseen the destruction of Central Appalachia, said Joe Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates,
"Thank goodness the court ruled that EPA has the ability to veto Army Corps permits," Lovett said.
Jim Hecker, an attorney for Public Justice, said the decision is "effectively the death knell to the largest and most destructive mountaintop removal coal mine ever proposed."
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he plans to reintroduce the EPA Fair Play Act in the 113th Congress in response to the EPA's veto of the Spruce No. 1 Mine permit. The EPA Fair Play Act was the first piece of legislation he introduced as a United States senator.
"Today's court decision is yet another example of bureaucracy at its worst: One agency grants a permit, another agency takes it away and business suffers in the end. The federal government should be an ally, not an adversary, in helping to strike a balance between protecting the environment and creating good American jobs," Manchin said.
Conrad Lucas, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, also criticized the decision and said Rahall has supported "Obama's War on Coal" for the past five years.
"We should be saddened, but not surprised that a D.C. Court would help Obama's EPA shut down a legally permitted and approved coal mine in West Virginia. This ex post facto approach is a case of the EPA changing the rules after everyone else is already playing the game fairly and lawfully. Likely hundreds of West Virginia jobs are lost," Lucas said. "The Spruce Mine, in the heart of southern West Virginia coal country, is where we must join this battle against the liberal Democrats of D.C. Obama's footsoldiers seek to destroy our very way of life for the sake of an agenda that guts our economy."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said workers and businesses must have the certainty and when the federal government decides for or against issuing a permit, they know it's the final decision.
"This ruling leaves open the question of whether the EPA was fair to all the players involved in this case, and it even further prolongs the uncertainty," Rockefeller said. "West Virginians deserve better. That's why I cosponsored legislation last Congress to prevent EPA from retroactively vetoing permits once they are issued. The EPA's role is to help maintain water safety, but it must follow the procedures under the law, and be consistent and fair."