Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund yesterday filed for judgment in a suit against the U.S. Department of Interior, charging that Interior’s 1999 regulation that allows coal companies to undermine homes and parklands is illegal. The regulation allows underground coal mines to cause “subsidence” of the surface, which can lead to collapsing homes and other structures, damage to parklands and water pollution. Impacts will be experienced in a number of areas, particularly the Appalachian coalfields of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.
“Interior Department officials — who don’t live above coal mines — callously claim it’s superfluous to protect people’s homes from being cracked and tilted and to keep their water supplies from being drained or polluted,” said Howard Fox of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. in the suit. “They’re willing to jeopardize tens of thousands of homes — and the safety of the people who live in them — to help their friends in the coal industry.”
At issue in the suit is subsidence from underground coal mines. When coal is excavated underground, the surface settles with dramatic results that have been noted by the U.S. Supreme Court: “[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 Coal Ass’n. v. DeBenedictis, 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, and roads. Initially, the Interior Department ruled that subsidence from underground coal mining was within this prohibition. However, in 1991, the agency reversed course and tried to exempt subsidence. In a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. and other organizations, that ruling was struck down in 1993 because the agency had not allowed an opportunity for public comment. Interior reissued the exemption in 1999, despite adverse comments from Earthjustice and others.
“The Interior Department itself estimates that this rule places at risk 29,600 homes, and over 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.”
The summary judgment papers were filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, 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.