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While the fight to end mountaintop removal coal mining is still far from over, we are celebrating today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on a massive mountaintop removal project, the Spruce Mine. The court affirmed that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority under the Clean Water Act to veto mountaintop removal coal mining permits after they’ve been issued.

This is a major milestone in the fight to end the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining. The Spruce Mine – the focus of this case – 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.

Today’s ruling affirms EPA’s authority to ensure the safety of our waterways and the health of our communities, including by vetoing improper permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers.

We joined Earthjustice, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, and other allies West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, and Natural Resources Defense Council in arguing for this ruling, which reverses a prior District Court ruling. The case will now return to District Court to answer other questions about the Spruce Mine decision.

Here’s some history on this Spruce Mine case: On January 13, 2010, the EPA finalized a “veto” of a waste dump associated with one of Appalachia’s largest surface mines, Mingo Logan Coal Company’s Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, West Virginia. The EPA used its clear legal authority under the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to veto the mine’s waste dump because it posed unacceptable risks to the environment.

According to the EPA, the proposed mine would have:

  • Dynamited more than 2,200 acres of mountains and forest lands.
  • Disposed of more than 110 million cubic yards of mining waste into streams.
  • Polluted downstream waters with mining waste, causing permanent damage to ecosystems and streams.

The EPA’s veto of the Spruce mine waste dumps was not a surprise, as EPA’s opposition to the project began during the Bush administration with a 2002 letter objecting to the proposed permit. The EPA consistently expressed its concerns about the environmental impacts of the Spruce mine. Contrary to some reports, the EPA never approved granting the permit.

Given the failure of state regulators and the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the destructive impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining, EPA plays a crucial role in protecting Appalachia’s communities and environment. Today’s decision reinforces one of EPA’s most powerful tools.

This victory comes on the heels of another court victory, on Monday, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit threw out a rubber stamp for mountaintop removal projects, the notorious “nationwide permit 21″ issued in 2007. Although that version of NWP 21 expired last year, this court ruling affirms that, for far too long, Appalachia’s mountains were being forever destroyed under an embarrassingly flimsy permitting process that did little to nothing to safeguard public health or clean water.

Meanwhile, many current mountaintop removal mines that started operating under the 2007 NWP 21 are still operating today. The case was brought by our allies Public Justice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates on behalf of on behalf of Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, and Kentucky Waterways Alliance.

I am honored to work side-by-side with such amazing people to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. From the local Appalachian advocates who live with the destruction of it every day, to our national partners. Many of them have worked tirelessly for decades on this issue and will not stop until mountaintop removal coal mining stops.

This quote from last week’s Kentuckians For The Commonwealth “Appalachia’s Bright Future Conference” especially rings true to me:

“We’re for a viable and a sustainable community….we want this place to last. I’ve got eight grandchildren, and I would love for them to be able to run around these mountains and drink out of these streams.”

Mountaintop removal coal mining destroys Appalachian communities, poisons waterways, and lays waste to beautiful, biodiverse landscapes. It must be stopped.