OK, here’s some rare good news in the fight against mountaintop removal mining. Last Friday, Judge Robert "Chuck" Chambers, a federal judge in West Virginia, ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke the law in issuing MTR mining permits that would allow streams to be buried. This means that, finally, the Corps, which approves mining permits, will have to recognize and uphold the Clean Water Act!

They’ve been called out for illegally issuing permits that destroy vital streams, ecosystems, and the environment around mining sites. Never mind that they’re supposed to be the ones in charge of protecting the environment and preserving the integrity of the streams and rivers that run through the all-but-devastated Appalachian Mountains. Now they actually have to do their jobs, not facilitate the kind of environmental destruction they purport to fight.

Hard to believe it took a federal judge and months of appeals and public outcry to make the Army and the government keep their word. Makes me wonder what else we should be holding their feet to the fire for. How does this affect Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 mine, which I wrote about at the end of January? Well, it sounds like it’ll take more time in court to come to a conclusion, so stay tuned. Friday was a great day, though; Judge Chambers decision set a remarkably important precedent.

Now for the bad news.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

West Virginia’s State Surface Mine Board approved Massey Energy Co.’s permit to build that second coal silo near Marsh Fork Elementary School.

Remember this issue? A couple hundred small children going to school 225 feet from a coal silo that releases poisonous, chemical-laden coal dust into the air, dust that has been found throughout the school, and just down the mountainside from a 385-feet tall sludge dam containing nearly 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge and waste?

But let’s forget about the sludge dam for a second (even though it contains over 20 times the volume of another nearby sludge dam that broke and killed 125 people in 1972) and focus on the silo. The coal dust it gives off is poisonous, literally poisonous. Children are sick, teachers are sick, but there are no other schools to attend, so the kids’ parents are forced to choose between their children’s health and education and the teachers between their health and a job. Now, instead of cleaning up the site and/or building the children a new school like Governor Manchin (W.Va.) indicated he might, the state has given Massey the go ahead to build another silo.

Overturning the WV DEP’s 2005 order to block the silo, the Surface Mine Board gave Massey the go-ahead on Tuesday, March 13. And lest anyone downplay the danger this silo posed with Massey’s PR spin of reducing emissions, Massey’s own permit predicts an increase of emissions by three and a half tons per year. That’s a lot of coaldust.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

No wonder West Virginians are embarrassed of their government. No wonder they’re disappointed to a point bordering on hopelessness. The rest of the country is still mostly in the dark about what’s happening to West Virginia, to its residents and their homes, and to the future of their children — and the people in charge, rather than work to increase awareness and stop the madness, encourage the coal companies to ravage and rape the place they call home! It’s absolutely mind-boggling. I’ve heard stories of Senator Robert C. Byrd crying because he was "so devastated" for everyone affiliated with MFE. I’ve watched the videos of Governor Manchin looking into the eyes of a small child, assuring her and her grandparents that he would help them.

In reality, when activists and concerned citizens came to appeal to his reason and his compassion last week, when they came to his office to sit in protest of this outrageous and dangerous new ruling, they were arrested. But I guess that’s just politics as usual, politics as terrible and politics as immoral, which is how it’s been in West Virginia for a long time now, as long as King Coal has reigned supreme over conscience, public service, and the law itself.