The U.S. Supreme Court will decide Friday whether to wade into the years-long fight over the largest proposed mountaintop removal mining project in history.
During the justices’ traditional Friday conference they will consider a petition for certiorari filed by a mining company that plans to fill miles of streams, and several square miles of streamside forests, with the dirt and rock removed in a quest for coal that would strip away more than 3,100 acres of terrain.
The permit allowing the destruction was granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2007, then revoked by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011.
The legal fight focuses on whether EPA has the power to withdraw a permit granted by another agency of the executive branch after the beneficiary of that permit begins to act in reliance on it. But the real stakes of the now 15-year old battle involve the fate of one of the most fecund regions in the world.
Mountaintop removal mining, one environmental advocate says, is akin to “erasing the most biologically diverse forest on Earth.”
“It’s really hard to understand the scope and scale of it even from the ground below it,” Vivian Stockman, a spokesperson for Ohio Valley Environmental Council, one of the organizations fighting the Mingo Logan wetlands fill permit, said. “You eliminate layers of rock that’s above the coal and dismantle the mountain. All of that goes into the streams.”
The battle that will be discussed around the justices’ conference room table Friday morning began in 1998, when Hobet Mining Co., a subsidiary of the giant Arch Coal Co., proposed to build the Spruce No. 1 coal mine in Logan County, W.Va.
Environmentalists launched the fight against the project in 1999, convincing a federal court to overturn a permit needed by the mining company before it could fill streams and cover land with the debris that conceals coal seams. That decision was, for the most part, upheld by a federal appeals court and, after several years of wrangling over the extent of environmental impact review required before the permit could be granted, the Corps again granted the permit in January 2007.
Along the way the mining project was transferred from Hobet to Wharncliffe-W.Va.-based Mingo Logan Coal Co.
The Corps relied on a section of the Clean Water Act that establishes a system for conserving wetlands when it gave Mingo the permit needed to proceed with the Spruce No. 1 mine. Thirty-seven dump sites in Appalachian streams were approved by the Corps.
EPA withdrew the permit in January 2011. According to the agency, the approximately 110 million cubic yards of mine waste pollution approved by the Corps-issued permit would destroy more than seven miles of waterway, including about 6.6 miles of two entire streams that are among the most pristine in West Virginia, and cover about 3.5 square miles of forest land.
The affected streams, EPA said in a document explaining its decision, “have some of the greatest aquatic animal diversity of any area in North America, including one of the richest concentrations of salamander fauna in the world, as well as many endemic and rare species of mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies.”
The riparian forest land is equally vital for wildlife. EPA explained that “[w]ith their adjacent riparian areas, these streams provide important habitat for 84 taxa of macroinvertebrates, up to 46 species of amphibians and reptiles, [four] species of crayfish, and [five] species of fish, as well as birds, bats, and other mammals.”
EPA also pointed out that rivers into which the affected streams flow would experience significant selenium pollution and increased salinity as a result of the pollution from the Spruce No. 1 mine.
Mingo Logan prevailed in a federal trial court after filing a lawsuit challenging EPA’s action, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed that victory last spring, rejecting an argument that EPA could not pull the permit after it was issued.
“Section 404 imposes no temporal limit on the Administrator’s authority to withdraw the Corps’ specification but instead expressly empowers him to prohibit, restrict or withdraw the specification ‘whenever’ he makes a determination that the statutory ‘unacceptable adverse effect’ will result,” wrote Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson for a unanimous panel.
The statutory language at the core of the fight is found in section 1344(c) of the Clean Water Act:
“The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.”
The U.S. Department of Justice, in a response to Mingo’s petition for certiorari, argues that this language represents a compromise between the House of Representatives’ desire that the Corps have the final say on wetlands fill permits and the Senate’s intent that EPA have it.
The environmental community agrees with that take on the controversy.
“The industry is trying to blow this issue out of proportion,” Emma Cheuse, an attorney with Earthjustice who has represented environmental organizations opposed to the Spruce No. 1 mine, said. “EPA has had the authority under the CWA to serve as a backstop to protect clean water for decades.”
An EPA website indicates that the agency has invoked its section 1344(c) power only 13 times and Cheuse explained that, while the agency’s decision to reject the section 404 permit granted to Mingo is the first time it has exercised its veto power in the context of a dispute over mining-related water pollution, the agency has a solid factual record to justify its action.
“EPA made a decision here based on robust, strong, and scientific grounds that it provided,” she said.
But Lyle Denniston, a reporter at the respected SCOTUS blog who has covered the Supreme Court for more than half a century, said that he is not sure the question is as clear as the statutory language might lead a casual observer to believe.
“EPA has argued that it seldom has used this power, and Mingo argues that it has actually been used only once — in this case,” he said. “So the court may wonder whether the outcome has any implication for other factual situations.”
“I think that is quite a close question, not answered by the text — or at least debatable enough under the textual language that the court might very well want to clarify it — but, once again, only if it thinks the issue has wider implications,” he continued.
That is the position taken by Mingo and its supporters, who include 27 states and several business advocacy organizations.
Paul Clement, who served as the government’s chief advocate in the supreme court under former President George W. Bush, argued in the company’s petition for certiorari that Congress could not have intended EPA to have the power to revoke permission to fill wetlands, even a whole stream, after companies have invested large sums of money in projects that depend on elimination of a wetland.
“By holding that EPA may withdraw site specifications years after the Corps has issued a permit, the decision below destroys regulatory certainty and overturns the settled expectations of the regulated community,” he wrote.
The Obama administration disputes that analysis, telling the justices in a response to Mingo’s request for review of the D.C. Circuit decision that Congress’ understanding that EPA would interpret section 1344(c), and the agency’s long-standing record of reading the statute as a grant of authority to reject a permit after it is issued by the Corps, is entitled to deference from the Supreme Court.
“An express delegation of rulemaking authority is the clearest sign of Congress’s intent that an agency will speak with the force of law when it interprets a statute. As relevant here, the CWA contains precisely such a delegation. . . One of [EPA’s] statutorily authorized functions is to withdraw specifications of disposal sites. The EPA therefore spoke with the force of law when it construed Section 1344(c) in its 1979 regulations, and when it subsequently published three post-permit final determinations after notice and comment and a public hearing (in 1981, in 1992, and in this case). And while the EPA has very rarely exercised its power to withdraw a specification after a permit has been issued, the agency has adhered since 1979 to the view that it possesses statutory authority to do so.”
The government’s argument on this point is based on a doctrine of administrative law that requires judges to defer to an agency’s interpretation of statutory language when there is any ambiguity present in it.
Should the Supreme Court agree to hear the case, it will likely consider it during the term that starts next October.
The case is Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 13-599.
Image courtesy Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.