Appeals Court Upholds EPA Veto of Massive Spruce No. 1 Mountaintop Removal Mine Permit

Today Appalachian Mountain Advocates and our partners helped to win another round in the decades-long legal battle over the Spruce No. 1 mine, the largest mountaintop removal mining site ever proposed for our region. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit today upheld the EPA’s 2011 decision to block a permit for the mine because of the unacceptable environmental harm it would cause. If built, this huge mine would cause permanent devastation, including leveling 2,000 acres of centuries-old mountaintop as well as the destruction of six miles of critical headwater streams and miles of downstream contamination.

We’ve been fighting the project since the late ’90s. In fact, Appalachian Mountain Advocates first organized more than 15 years ago specifically to fight this massive environmental disaster. At the time, no other lawyer had ever challenged mountaintop removal mining. We have been fighting the Spruce No. 1 mine — and other destructive projects like it — ever since.

The mine was originally intended to span more than 3,000 acres, burying 10 miles of pristine mountain streams under up to 1,800 feet of dirt and rock. We’ve helped to force back this proposal for years, finally pushing EPA to complete an extensive environmental review based on up-to-date science revealing the permanent harm that would result from building a mine of this size. EPA ultimately used its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the permit for the mine, halting the proposed valley fills.

In the latest chapter of this long fight, the Mingo Logan Coal Company, which has proposed the mine, sued the EPA to challenge the veto. We intervened in support of the agency. In 2014, our support helped EPA secure a win in the federal court upholding the agency’s legal authority to veto a mining permit. Today, the D.C. Circuit affirmed that decision, rejecting the coal company’s appeal.

“We applaud the court for recognizing EPA’s broad authority to protect water quality from extreme practices like mountaintop removal coal mining,” said Ben Luckett, attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates. “Going forward, we urge EPA to use its power to protect the people of Appalachia and beyond from having their water supplies further degraded by irresponsible extractive industries.”

“It’s encouraging to know EPA’s important veto authority and specific denial of the monstrous Spruce No.1 mine have now been affirmed twice by a federal appeals court,” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “Now it’s time for the industry to follow the science, EPA, and courts, and finally recognize what the law requires—we need to protect our waters, natural areas, and mountain communities, not destroy them any longer for the profit of a few coal companies.”

“This ruling closes the final chapter on the devastation mountaintop removal mining would cause at the Spruce site,” said Emma Cheuse, attorney with Earthjustice. “The court’s affirmation of EPA’s expert scientific decision to prevent unacceptable environmental harm gives West Virginia communities essential and much-needed protection for local waterways, mountains, and a sustainable way of life that doesn’t depend on blowing up mountains, and we will continue calling on EPA to do more to protect communities.”

“The Court’s action today is critical to protecting the people of Appalachia and our water supplies from what would have been one of the most harmful mountaintop removal coal mining sites in the history of our region,” said Bill Price, an organizer for the Sierra Club based in West Virginia. “We applaud the Court’s decision and urge the EPA to continue putting West Virginian families before dirty polluter profits. Mountaintop removal coal mining prevents the region from obtaining economic justice—the EPA can help by protecting water quality and encouraging sustainable clean energy solutions that take us beyond these destructive mining practices.”

“EPA properly relied on over 100 scientific studies to veto a mine the size of downtown Pittsburgh that would have buried one of the last remaining high-quality streams in the Coal River watershed,” said Jim Hecker, attorney with Public Justice who brought and has continued to litigate the case challenging the Corps’ Spruce mine authorization, with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, which was on hold while awaiting today’s decision.

Appalachian Mountain Advocates and Earthjustice submitted a “friend of the Court” brief, known as an amicus curiae brief, in support of EPA’s decision to veto the permit. The brief was submitted on behalf of West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the Sierra Club.