Coal industry lawyers are hoping to combine the results of several recent court cases to significantly narrow the ability of citizen groups to block new mountaintop-removal mining permits in federal court.
Lawyers for Alpha Natural Resources outlined their strategy last week during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers, who is considering citizen group challenges to at least two permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Shane Harvey, a former Massey Energy Co. general counsel now representing Alpha, argued that a trio of federal court cases leaves Chambers with very little ability to overrule a permit approval from the corps.
The rulings — a district court ruling, an appeals court decision and a U.S. Supreme Court opinion — show federal judges should “defer to the corps’ review” of applications for Clean Water Act “dredge-and-fill” permits, Harvey said in a legal brief.
Chambers did not immediately agree, and questioned Harvey in detail about parts of the industry’s analysis. Obama administration lawyers, representing the corps at the hearing, also argued a similarly narrow view, saying Chambers should not hear detailed evidence from academic experts working with citizen groups in the case.
At issue is a permit the corps granted to Alpha subsidiary Highland Mining for its 635-acre Reylas Surface mine near Ethel in Logan County.
The company hopes to employ about 100 people for six years of mining, and then create a 235-acre site with paved roads and utilities that could be used for temporary housing during flooding and other emergencies. The mine, though, would bury about 2.5 miles of streams beneath a valley fill and associated runoff-control structures.