Citizen groups scored a major legal victory in overturning a 1999 Interior Department regulation that allowed coal companies to collapse the surface under homes, schools, national parks, and other sensitive areas protected by Congress. Kentucky Resources Council, Inc., represented by Walton Morris, Jr. and Earthjustice, joined Citizens Coal Council and other groups in challenging the rule. The federal district court agreed that the regulation violated a statutory ban enacted by Congress on surface mining operations in national parks, wilderness, and other areas.
The challenged regulation allowed underground coal mines 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.
"This is a straight out victory for environmental justice that took fifteen years to arrive," said John Wathen, a member of the CCC Board of Directors and resident of Tuscaloosa, AL.
"This is a great victory, especially for people who live above coal mines," said Howard Fox, attorney for Earthjustice. "Congress specifically protected homes, historic sites, and other important areas, recognizing that we have hundreds of years of minable coal in non-protected areas. If the Interior Department really cares about preventing coal mines from destroying and damaging tens of thousands of homes, it will follow the mandate of the statute. As the court correctly ruled, Congress has spoken clearly on this issue."
Subsidence from underground coal mines 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 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. DeBenedictis, 480 U.S. 470, 475 n.2 (1987).
"The Interior Department itself estimated that this rule placed 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 this rule would have inflicted on the affected communities was substantial and inexcusable."
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, Interior reversed course and tried to exempt subsidence. In an Earthjustice lawsuit filed in 1991, 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 from Earthjustice and others.
The ruling came in the case of Citizens Coal Council v. Norton, D.D.C. Civ. No. 00-274 JR. Walton Morris, Jr. of Charlottesville, VA, argued the case for Citizens Coal Council, Kentucky Resources Council, Inc., National Wildlife Federation, and the National Trust For Historic Preservation in the United States.
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