Arch Coal has been looking to expand its environmentally destructive operations at its Spruce 1 mine in West Virginia since the late-1990s, and on January 13 the second-largest coal supplier in the United States hit a roadblock.
After enduring a decade of opposition from environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) flexed its muscle. With the Clean Water Act as its authority, the EPA vetoed the proposed expansion permit for Spruce 1, which Army Corps of Engineers had already signed off on. The EPA has used the Clean Water Act in a similar fashion only 12 times since its inception in 1972.
"The history of EPA’s use of our ... authority demonstrates clearly that permits are not vulnerable to being revoked,” an EPA spokeswoman stated after intense criticism from the coal industry. “The [Army] Corps authorizes approximately 100,000 projects in the nation’s waters every year, which translates to millions of permits during the past 39 years” of the Clean Water Act.
Environmentalists were jubilant. As initially proposed, Spruce 1 was to be the largest mountaintop removal mine in history. It was to span three thousands acres and would have filled five valleys and destroyed six miles of streams with its noxious mining debris.
“The EPA has resisted enormous pressure from Arch Coal and the coal lobby in carrying out its responsibility to put the protection of our environment and the communities who depend upon it, ahead of corporate profits,” responded Amanda Starbuck of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) after the EPA’s announcement.
Last September RAN activists dumped 1,000 pounds of Appalachia dirt on the sidewalk of EPA headquarters in Washington DC to protest Spruce 1.
While hailed as a victory by adversaries of mountaintop removal, Arch Coal predictably disagreed with the EPA’s bold decision.
“We believe this decision will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investment because every business possessing or requiring a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act will fear similar overreaching by the EPA,” Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link said in a statement. “It’s a risk many businesses cannot afford to take.”
The Clean Water Act’s Section 404(c) gives the EPA authority to block permits for mining operations that dump debris in water bodies if such activities have “unacceptable adverse effects” on water quality.
The coal industry and its political allies in Washington are already calling on the courts to overturn the EPA’s assessment. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin unashamedly stated the his state “will continue with all efforts to get this decision reversed."
“I am deeply angered by the EPA’s decision to revoke the Spruce Mine permit,” added Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a long-time ally of coal. “Their decision is wrong and unfair – Spruce Mine has always made good faith efforts to comply with the applicable laws and regulations. But this fight is not over. Ultimately, this is a decision that has a strong chance of being overturned by the courts, and I will continue to do everything in my power to stand up for our West Virginia miners and their jobs.”
The future of Spruce 1 is far from written. Arch Coal has already appealed the EPA’s review of the permit while environmentalists will persist in contesting an operation the agency approved for another section of the Spruce 1 site that will result in burying almost a mile of streambed.