The federal District Court for the District of Columbia is scheduled to hear oral arguments today in an Earthjustice case challenging a 1999 Interior Department regulation that allows coal companies to collapse the surface under homes, schools, national parks, and other sensitive areas that Congress protected. Earthjustice, representing the Kentucky Resources Council, Inc., charges that this practice is illegal and should be stopped. The regulation allows coalmines to cause subsidence of the surface, which can without warning collapse homes and other structures, damage parklands, and cause water pollution. Although areas throughout the country are affected by this practice, the Appalachian coalfields in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia are especially susceptible.
"The truth is that the Interior Department officials responsible for this regulation don't have to live above these coal mines," said Howard Fox, attorney for Earthjustice. "It is only reasonable to expect people's homes to be protected from damage and their water supply to remain safe, especially since we have hundreds of years of minable coal in non-protected areas. Incredibly, to help their friends in the coal industry some at Interior are willing to allow what they admit will be coal mine subsidence damage or destruction of tens of thousands of homes that will threaten the people who live in them."
At issue is subsidence from underground coalmines that threatens the safety of homeowners, children, visitors, and entire communities. Coal excavation in sensitive areas can cause the surface to collapse with disastrous and potentially fatal impacts, including broken gas and electric lines. The US Supreme Court has noted: "[D]amage can occur to buildings, roads, pipelines, cables, streams, water impoundments, wells, and aquifers. Buildings can be cracked or tilted; roads can be lowered or cracked; streams, water impoundments, and aquifers can all be drained into the underground excavations. Oil and gas wells can be severed, causing their contents to migrate into underground mines, into aquifers, and even into residential basements. Sewage lines, gas lines, and water lines can all be severed, as can telephone and electric cables." Keystone Bituminous Ass'n v. DeBenedictus, 480 U.S. 470, 475 n.2 (1987).
In the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, Congress prohibited surface impacts from underground coal mines in certain key areas, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas; state parks; historic sites; occupied dwellings, public buildings, schools, churches, cemeteries and roads. The Interior Department initially ruled that subsidence from underground coal mining was within this prohibition. However, in 1991, the agency reversed course and tried to exempt subsidence. In an Earthjustice lawsuit filed in 1993, that ruling was struck down because the Interior Department had not allowed for public comment. The agency reissued the exemption in 1999, despite adverse comments form Earthjustice and others.
"The Interior Department itself estimates that this rule places at risk 29,600 homes, and more than 15,000 acres of protected parks and open space lands," said Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. "The damage to homes and public lands, the disruption of lives and communities, and the physical danger and psychological harm that will be inflicted on the affected communities if this rule stands is substantial and inexcusable."
Today's oral arguments will be heard in Citizens Coal Council v. Babbitt, DDC Civ. No. 00-274 JR. Citizens Coal Council, National Wildlife Federation, and the National Trust For Historic Preservation in the United States join the Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. in the suit.