Judge Rules Against Environmental Groups in Case Involving Coal Mining’s Health Effects

A federal judge has ruled against environmental groups in a case involving a surface mine in Eastern Kentucky.

The Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and other groups filed a lawsuit last October against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, hoping to block a permit the Corps issued to coal company Leeco for a valley fill on the border between Knott and Perry counties. The permit was one of those that underwent “enhanced coordination procedures” by the Environmental Protection Agency; the EPA had concerns about the permit, but eventually it was revised and moved forward to the Army Corps.

Usually these lawsuits focus on the environment effects of strip mining, but this lawsuit was the first to argue that the Corps hadn’t taken the human health effects of the practice into account when it issued the permit. The groups argued that the Corps had violated the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when they issued the permit.

From the original lawsuit: 

The Corps’ failure to perform an Environmental Impact Statement on the Stacy Branch Permit violated NEPA and is arbitrary and capricious because the Corps failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of the project in the following respects:  

The Corps has no reasoned basis or substantial evidence to conclude that the human health effects of the proposed surface mine will be individually or cumulatively insignificant; 

The Corps has no reasoned basis or substantial evidence to conclude that the project will not result in disproportionate harm to a low-income population

But Judge Thomas B. Russell disagreed, and ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

Were the Court deciding the Permit issue in the first instance, perhaps its opinion would be different. However, under the highly deferential standard of review afforded to the Corps, the Court finds it did not act unreasonably. Though, as Plaintiffs’ arguments illustrate, reasonable minds could differ on many of the issues decided by the Corps, the Corps adequately analyzed the issues before it before issuing the Permit.

Here’s what representatives from Earthjustice and the Sierra Club had to say about it, in statements sent last night:

It’s outrageous that our own government would claim it doesn’t have to consider its people’s health,” said Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley. “The policy that was upheld today lets the Obama administration close its eyes to the evidence of increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and other serious health problems from mountaintop removal coal mines. This policy puts Appalachian people at grave risk. The system is clearly broken and needs to be fixed.”

“We’re still reviewing the decision, but are deeply disappointed that the Army Corps of Engineers failed to consider the devastating impacts this mountaintop removal mine will have on communities in Kentucky,” said Lane Boldman of the Sierra Club. “The science is clear that mountaintop removal mining not only poisons our drinking water and destroys our land, but is linked to serious and deadly illnesses including cancer, heart, lung and kidney diseases. The Corps has consistently failed in their responsibility to consider all of the environmental impacts of this dangerous form of mining, leaving Appalachian families to pay the price.”

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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