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Mining suit ruling could affect state's economy 12/5

December 05, 2000

Mining suit ruling could affect state's economy 12/5



This week a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., will begin deliberations on a 1999 decision that could severely limit the coal-mining method known as "mountaintop removal."

The court's ruling won't have much physical impact on the Eastern Panhandle, but because coal revenues are still essential to the state's economy, the financial consequences could be significant.

At issue is last's year's ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Haden, which he stayed until an appeal could be heard, in support of a rule that bars mining activity within 100 feet of all but the smallest streams. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, which filed the suit that sparked the ruling, says enforcing the rule will result in smaller mines. But coal operators say it will effectively shut down mining in the state.

The court's job will be complicated by the fact that the federal government switched sides midway through the suit. Originally, the feds backed the state's more liberal interpretation of the buffer rule, but Department of the Interior spokesmen now say that district court deliberations provided good reason for the change.

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The appeals court will also be asked to resolve whether citizens can sue in federal court to force states to enforce their laws. But the biggest issue may be the economic one. Simply stated, the court will be asked to decided which is more important - the environment or the state's economy.

This isn't just scare talk from the coal industry. Top West Virginia lawmakers note that the current year's budget was balanced only with millions from the federal tobacco settlement. The same is likely to happen this year, in part because coal severance tax proceeds are projected to drop because of uncertainty over this lawsuit.

The challenge then, is for the court to find a middle ground that will allow mining to continue without turning every stream bed in the coal mining region into a dumping ground for rocks, soil and other debris. Unfortunately, there is no miracle technology available that will make the court's job easier.

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