James Weekley walked into Joe Lovett’s office in 1997 and opened up the U.S. News and World Report to a photograph of a massive strip mine encroaching on forested mountains. He pointed to a hollow directly below the mine: “That’s where I live,” he said.
Weekley’s home in Pigeonroost Hollow backs up to the Spruce No. 1 mine, one of the largest mountaintop removal mining sites ever proposed. The mine was 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.
The conversation that followed ultimately drove Lovett and his colleague Ryan Alexander to found Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Since then we have led the legal battles defining the fight against mountaintop removal mining. Nearly 20 years since Weekley’s visit, Appalachian Mountain Advocates has continued to block the Spruce No. 1 mine, as well as many others across our region.
At the time of Weekley’s first visit, no lawyer had ever challenged mountaintop removal mining. Lovett was in largely unexplored legal territory.
He soon filed a lawsuit challenging the permit on behalf of conservation groups and 10 coalfield residents, including Weekley. In court, Lovett faced off against more than a dozen lawyers representing the coal industry and government regulators. After a lengthy hearing including evidence from expert scientists as well as a tour and flyover of mountaintop removal operations, the court granted Lovett a preliminary injunction, pausing work on the mine until it could hear the full merits of case. The court recognized that permanent destruction of mountains, streams and wildlife outweighed any possible short-term economic losses.
As Lovett prepared for the trial, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stunned the coal company by withdrawing the permit, recognizing there was “virtually no chance” the agency would prevail in court.
Lovett’s advocacy in this case ultimately secured a landmark ruling banning many of the most environmentally destructive valley fills, a euphemism for the disposal of mining waste in pristine mountain streams that inevitably result from the mountaintop removal process. The court ruled that these valley fills violated the federal “buffer zone rule” — which prohibits most surface-mining activity within 100 feet of streams.
The court’s ruling ignited a firestorm of protest from the coal industry and coalfield politicians. Senator Robert C. Byrd took to the Senate floor to denounce the ruling and worked hard, but unsuccessfully, to overturn it legislatively. The ruling was never overturned on the merits; however, it was ultimately vacated on a jurisdictional technicality. The appeals court found that the state couldn’t be sued in federal court — even for violations of federal law. The Bush administration then acted swiftly to eliminate the buffer zone rule completely, removing our ability to rely on that environmental safeguard.
CONTINUING THE FIGHT
Appalmad has continued to work creatively despite that ruling, crafting innovative (and successful) legal challenges to the coal industry. For example, nearly a decade after Weekley’s first visit, Appalmad once again went to federal court to challenge a new permit for the Spruce No. 1 coal mine. As our legal battle progressed, our expert scientific analysis caused the EPA took a hard look at the environmental impact of the proposed mine. The EPA ultimately used its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the permit, halting the coal company proposed valley fills.
When the coal company sued the EPA, Appalmad intervened in support of the agency. Our support helped EPA secure a win in the federal court upholding the agency’s legal authority to veto a mining permit. We once more provided legal support for the EPA’s position when the coal company appealed that decision. Just recently, in July 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the EPA’s 2011 decision, rejecting the coal company’s appeal.
MORE THAN A COURT FIGHT
Appalmad’s Spruce No. 1 mine litigation has helped to drive the politics and the activism of those opposed to mountaintop removal mining. Our work has focused national attention on mountaintop removal mining, catalyzing the opposition to the destructive practice. The outside experts we have brought in to challenge industry-funded science and state regulatory agencies provided solid support for community opposition.
Even more, the legal precedents we’ve established have strengthened regulation of mountaintop removal mining, leading to smaller and more heavily regulated valley fills. Appalmad and other organizations across the country continue to rely on the legal and scientific foundation set in this case in our subsequent challenges to other permits.
Pigeonroost Hollow is safe, for now. But other hollows throughout Appalachia are still threatened by coal mining. And new threats are emerging as the natural gas industry sets its sights on our region. This case began Appalmad’s deep commitment to fighting extractive industries and making way for clean energy in the marketplace.
Read more about why we do what we do.