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Groups Sue Army Corps of Engineers Over Mountaintop Removal Permits

Colonel William Bulen, District Engineer, Huntington District Office Colonel William Bulen, District Engineer

Fed up with the federal government’s continued illegal permitting of mountaintop removal valley fills, two West Virginia environmental groups and one national group filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on October 23, 2003 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia in Huntington. Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition v. Bulen challenges the illegal use of Nationwide Permit 21 for large-scale surface mining operations, particularly mountaintop removal operations.  

The action seeks to force the Army Corps of Engineers to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act by authorizing these mines only after thorough study of the environmental and community impacts of the mines. If successful, this action will set a precedent for improved Corps’ permitting throughout the Appalachian Region and nationally. Named as defendants are Colonel William Bulen, District Engineer for the Corps' Huntington District Office, and Lieutenant General Robert B. Flowers, Chief of Engineers and Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"Big Coal has buried alive 1,200 miles of streams, and the Corps has buried the truth by calling this major disaster a minimal impact," said TLPJ's Jim Hecker.

The action was filed on behalf of the Whitesville-based Coal River Mountain Watch, the Huntington-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Resources Defense Council by Joe Lovett, Executive Director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and Jim Hecker, Environmental Enforcement Director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ).  

“The Corps’ mindless action is decimating much of Appalachia. Over 1,200 miles of Appalachian headwaters streams already have been buried under waste rock valley fills from mountaintop removal coalmines. More than one million acres of the most productive and diverse temperate hardwood forests in the world have been destroyed since 1977,” said Vivian Stockman, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. 

“Our communities face threats of increased flooding, coal waste impoundment failures, and contaminated drinking water.  We are forced to sell our land as surface mining operations displace generations-old communities and make life in the coalfields unlivable. And without the approval of the Corps, these mines could not be permitted,” said Judy Bonds, Outreach Coordinator with Coal River Mountain Watch.

Despite prior litigation and the devastating scientific data developed by the federal agencies in preparing the recently released draft environmental impact statement on mountaintop removal mining, the Corps continues to authorize coal mining activities with Nationwide 21 permits in southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. 

“It is unfortunate that citizens must resort to litigation to force the Bush administration to enforce environmental protection laws passed by Congress more than 25 years ago,” attorney Joe Lovett said. “The Administration’s collusion with coal operators to undermine the enforcement of these crucial laws, if allowed to continue, will not only destroy the region’s forests, streams and mountains, but also its economic future”

“Big Coal has buried alive 1,200 miles of streams, and the Corps has buried the truth by calling this major disaster a minimal impact,” said TLPJ’s Jim Hecker. “The Corps should stop twisting science and the law to satisfy industry greed, and instead make Big Coal conform to the law.”

“It’s painfully obvious that the Corps is acting without regard to the law by ignoring the individual, let alone cumulative effects of valley fills on the natural resources and communities in the coalfields. The Corps isn’t bothering to review and evaluate the destruction it is permitting. The effects to communities and the ecosystem are hardly minimal and temporary, but massive and permanent,” Stockman added. “The Corps is betraying the public trust by leaving a landscape that will not recover for hundreds of years.”

“In issuing general Nationwide 21 Permits for mountaintop removal valley fills, the Army Corps of Engineers is ignoring both the law and science,” said Bonds.  “It’s exceedingly disturbing that the government is so routinely and callously breaking the law without any regard for the long-term social and ecological costs. Once again we have to resort to the courts to get the government to obey its own laws."