Spruce Court Decision: A Sad Day in West Virginia

Citizens vow to fight harder against mountaintop removal mining

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[Updated 4.6.12]   A federal district court judge overruled the Environmental Protection Agency’s veto of the proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia, a case in which Earthjustice and partners and clients in West Virginia were granted amicus curiae.

The court ruling came as heartbreaking news for our partners in West Virginia and across Appalachia, who have been fighting to protect their communities from this proposed mine (and mountaintop removal mining in general) in the courts for more than a decade. The Spruce No. 1 mine would be the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia, and one the largest in all of Appalachia.

Like all mountaintop removal mines, it is likely to inflict a slew of health hazards on nearby communities, as well as shake their homes and cause costly property damage. The Spruce mine would also bury and destroy seven miles of vital streams and decimate more than 2,000 mountain acres, razing 3.5 square miles of mountaintop forests and dumping 110 million cubic yards of toxic mining waste into waters and valleys an area already suffering from the impacts of mountaintop removal mining.

The EPA based its decision to veto the Spruce mine permit on the Clean Water Act, which tasks the agency with protecting waters of the United States whenever and wherever they are, asserting that it is never too late to protect Americans’ waters and putting no time limits or deadlines on the EPA’s authority to protect Americans from pollution. The EPA also based the decision on extensive scientific studies, a major public hearing in West Virginia and review of more than 50,000 public comments opposing the mine. In January of 2011, the EPA finally found that this mine would result in “unacceptable adverse effects” for an area already too degraded and used its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the mine’s permit. Communities and concerned citizens across Appalachia celebrated — justice and protections were finally coming to the region.

“We breathe a huge sigh of relief today, and we thank the EPA and the Obama administration for enforcing the Clean Water Act,” said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “The science completely validates what we have been saying for more than a decade: These types of mining operations are destroying our streams and forests and nearby residents’ health, and even driving entire communities to extinction. This type of coal mining is destroying our cultural heritage and our future.”

So, needless to say, on Friday when the news of the court decision came, for so many of our partners and friends, it felt once again like their communities and lives and health don’t matter.

Said a coalition of groups in a joint statement (read full statement here):

It is a sad day not only for the people who live near mountains and streams threatened by mountaintop removal coal mining, but for all Americans who understand the need to protect our waterways, and the health of communities that depend on the them …  We need EPA to be able to fully protect our waters. This egregiously harmful coal mining practice, which decimates mountains and buries streams with mining waste, is linked to grave health threats for families and communities across the region. Waters are being buried and contaminated at unprecedented rates in Appalachia, and numerous scientific studies show that the people in this region are suffering greatly.

Though this decision is a setback, our groups are vowing to forge ahead in our fight for justice and clean water. “Our groups are committed to fighting for clean water and justice in Appalachia until the people in Appalachia get the protections we so deserve,” said the coalition, also urging the EPA to appeal this decision and defend its authority to protect Appalachian waters and communities. The EPA said that it is reviewing the decision; the agency has 60 days to decide to appeal. If you agree that mountaintop removal mining is wrong and care about these communities and their right clean water, now is the time to urge the EPA to appeal this decision.

Meanwhile, Arch Coal is not able to immediately move forward with the Spruce mine because of a separate challenge in a West Virginia court by our partners at Appalachian Mountain Advocates to the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit. Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez explained that, “As we view the facts on the ground, [Arch Coal] cannot move forward with the permit. The validity of the permit is very much in question.”

Please take action and tell the Obama administration to keep up the fight for the waters and people in Appalachia, and to appeal this decision.


Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.