Moving Mountains Just Got Harder


Moving mountains may not sound so bad until, that is, you realize you have to put them somewhere. So say detractors of mountaintop removal, a commonly practiced technique for mining coal in the Appalachian Mountains.

Between 1985 and 2001, a federal study estimated that more than 1,200 miles of streams in the Appalachians were buried or severely impacted as a result of mountain top removal, and environmentalists have long decried the Army Corps of Engineers for okaying ditches that have been constructed to replace the waterways—an ecological tradeoff on par with ordering free-range Cornish game hen and getting chicken McNuggets.

On Friday, a District Court Judge in West Virginia agreed, rescinding permits at four state mines, and by ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental impact assessments fail to meet the requirements of Clean Water Act. The judge called [PDF] portions of the Corps’ assessments “no more than lip service,” pointing out that despite the Corps’ claim that ditches could be connected and made to perform the same function as destroyed streams, the Corps’ own witnesses did “not know of any successful stream creation projects in the Appalachian region.”

Environmental attorney Steve Roady, with Earthjustice, sees the court’s decision as a major victory.

“The federal government has been illegally issuing such permits…The Corps has had every opportunity to prove its claim that mountaintop removal mining can be done without destroying entire watersheds and landscapes.”

And until it does, the court’s ruling could impact as many as 60 new coal mines pending permits in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

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  • Elizabeth Gettelman is a former managing editor and public affairs director at Mother Jones. To follow her on Twitter, click here.