"When Congress passed the Clean Water Act over 35 years ago, they never could have imagined that the Corps of Engineers would be turning our headwaters and streams into garbage dumps for coal mining waste," said Joe Lovett, attorney with the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment who represents the plaintiffs. "This decision just confirms what we've known all along: that the government's approach to permitting mountaintop removal mining pollutes our waters and violates the law."
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia today confirmed that the streams buried by valley fills and sediment pond embankments are protected under the Clean Water Act, and that the Corps of Engineers lacks authority to permit pollution discharge from these fills into streams and headwaters without proper Clean Water Act permits.
"The Bush administration has failed to carry out the most rudimentary requirements of the Clean Water Act," said Jennifer Chavez, attorney at Earthjustice who also represents the plaintiffs. "This ruling once again highlights that the Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with protecting these waters, has instead been allowing mining companies to run roughshod over the law. Nothing is more inconsistent with the Clean Water Act than allowing mining companies and other industries to use our waters as waste dumps."
In early May, a bi-partisan group of congressional representatives introduced legislation, "The Clean Water Protection Act," that would restore a 25-year-old prohibition under the Clean Water Act that prevented mining companies and other industries from dumping industrial wastes into the nation's waters. The legislation overturns a 2002 Army Corps of Engineers rule change that told mining companies they could create enormous valley fills and bury thousands of miles of streams.
Mountaintop removal mining is an extremely destructive form of mining that has already permanently buried more than 1,200 miles of streams in West Virginia and other states. In September 2005, Earthjustice and the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment, on behalf of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Coal River Mountain Watch challenged five West Virginia mountaintop removal permits. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia on March 23, found those permits violate the Clean Water Act. The judge ordered the Corps of Engineers to go back and comply with the law. Today's ruling confirms that the Corps of Engineers' permits allowing wholesale destruction of streams is illegal.