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Judge Rules Mine Sediment Ponds Violate Clean Water Act

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Using settling ponds to remove sediment
from streams at mountaintop removal coal mines violates the Clean
Water Act, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers jeopardizes an
industrywide practice that's been used for decades. Chambers also
ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have the
authority to allow mines to discharge sediment into settling ponds.
The corps has long allowed mountaintop removal mines to build
settling ponds just below valleys that have been filled with rock
and dirt removed to expose shallow coal seams. The corps has
maintained that those stretches are wastewater treatment ponds and
not waters of the United States.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, which is
representing the corps, declined to comment Wednesday.
The decision came in a lawsuit brought by the Ohio Valley
Environmental Coalition and two other groups. In an earlier ruling
in the case, Chambers held that the corps violated federal law by
issuing valley fill permits for four mountaintop removal mines
without adequately determining whether the environment would be
harmed.
Chambers' earlier ruling has raised numerous questions in the
coal industry about the future of mountaintop removal mining in
Appalachia. While decried by environmentalists, the practice is
embraced by the industry because it is a generally less expensive
and more efficient method of removing coal compared with
underground mines.
All four mines are operated by subsidiaries of Richmond,
Va.-based Massey Energy Co. A spokesman did not immediately respond
to requests for comment Wednesday.
Vivian Stockman from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
said the ruling reinforces the plaintiffs' belief that the corps
has long acted illegally. "The judge has basically ruled that the
way mines are built now is violating the Clean Water Act," she
said.
But West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney called
the ruling "astonishing."
"It appears that the judge is attempting to overturn the
Surface Mining Act, which has been around for 30 years," Raney
said, adding that sediment ponds improve water quality.
The ruling raises questions about underground coal mines as
well, which also have drainage controls, Raney said. "Every one of
them, they're mandated by the Surface Mining Act," he said. "The
judge has literally said, well, you can't use those anymore."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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