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Federal Appeals Court Decision Opens The Floodgates To Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining
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by Jim Sconyers, Chapter Chair | 2009

A Friday th 13th court decision is both bad luck and a bad precedent

The decision came in February on Friday the 13th - bad luck for West Virginia’s southern mountains.

It’s as if the dialog went like this.

· Coal industry to federal appeals court: “Show us the love!”

· Federal appeals court to coal industry: “Yes!”

For our land and communities in southern West Virginia, it’s a new Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Here’s what happened.

Federal District Court Judge Chambers had ruled several years ago that the Army Corps of Engineers was issuing permits for valley fills wrongly. This had virtually stopped any new mountaintop removal (MTR) coal operations. The reason: The Corps determined that there was no permanent damage to streams buried in valley fills. The Corps also accepted industry claims that digging new ditches fully replaced the destroyed natural streams. Chambers’ decision made it clear that there was no scientific basis for the Corps’ actions, and voluminous scientific evidence made it abundantly clear that the Corps’ claims fly in the face of accepted science.

The federal appeals court flatly rejected Chambers’ ruling. In effect this court said, “The Corps is a government agency - trust them!” Ironically, the court did not dispute the conclusions by scientists and environmentalists that valley fills absolutely destroy pristine mountain streams, or that human-made replacement “streams” do not in any way replace the natural streams eradicated by valley fills.

Mountaintop removal coal mining moves forward hand-in-hand with valley fills. In effect MTR is not possible without valley fills. Judge Chambers’ earlier decision halting valley fills

had also stopped new MTR operations.

Now this appeals court decision takes the brakes off MTR. Analysts predict a new wave of devastation when as many as 90 new MTR operations go ahead.

Mountaintop removal coal mining opponents see several possible avenues ahead. The appeals court could be asked to reconsider their decision. The appeals court decision could be appealed to the Supreme Court. But most importantly, President Obama made statements highly critical of MTR during his presidential campaign. Now the battle to stop MTR will move to the White House and U. S. Capitol.

For further information about and commentary on the appeals court decision, go to Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward’s blog “Coal Tattoo: Mining’s mark on our world” at 

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