In a blow to environmentalists, a federal appeals court has overturned a ruling preventing the U.S. government from issuing permits to mountaintop-mining operations. The operations access coal seams by shearing off huge slabs of mountains; the increasingly common process has resulted in tons of rock and dirt being dumped into valleys and streams. Last year, U.S. District Judge Charles Haden ruled that the process violated the Clean Water Act and he banned the feds from granting permits to mining operations that relied on mountaintop removal. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said yesterday that Haden overstepped his boundaries, because he had not been asked to consider whether the process contravened the Clean Water Act. The appeals court lifted the injunction against mountaintop removal for the moment, and remanded the case back to Haden for a narrower ruling.