By John McFerrin
The United States Army Corps of Engineers has refused to allow the Spruce No. 1 Mine, proposed by Arch Coal for Logan County, to proceed under a nationwide general permit previously approved by the Corps. As a result, Arch Coal will have to seek an individual permit from the Corps, a process which will require more detailed environmental study and may require as much as two years to complete.
The Corps of Engineers has in the past issued blanket, general permits for classes of similar activities. Such permits are intended for activities which have minimal environmental impact. Because the impacts were minimal, anyone wishing to engage in one of the covered activities could indicate its intention to be covered by the general permit and avoid the necessity of applying for a site specific permit.
As part of their litigation in federal court, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and several coalfield residents had contended that such a general permit was inappropriate for the filling of streams that is inherent in mountaintop removal strip mining. By its action, the Corps of Engineers has agreed. The Corps will require that Arch Coal to seek an individual permit for its Spruce No. 1 mine. Such an individual permit will require more extensive environmental studies and site specific review by the Corps.
The action by the Corps is consistent with the public positions of most public officials on mountaintop removal mining. Even those who supported mountaintop removal mining would consistently say that they favored doing it responsibly and that we needed more information on the environmental effects of mountaintop removal mining. That was the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection's position before the Governor's Task Force on Mountaintop Removal and a Task Force recommendation. Requiring Arch Coal to pursue an individual permit would help assure that any mining which is done will be done correctly and will increase our knowledge of the environmental effects of mountaintop removal strip mining.
A possible effect of this decision by the Corps is Arch Coalís abandonment of its plans to pursue the Spruce No. 1 mine. If that is the result, it will be because of the economics, not the environmentalists, the Corps, or anyone else. Arch Coal has exhausted the coal it can mine profitably on existing permits in the Blair area of Logan County. It continues to mine because its fixed costs are so high that if it stopped mining it would lose even more money. If Arch Coal abandons its plans for the Spruce No. 1 mine it will be because it cannot afford to have its equipment sit idle while it does the legally required studies to get a permit from the Corps of Engineers.
Even with the Corpsí decision, mountaintop removal can go ahead. It will just take more advance planning, more thorough studies, and the detailed environmental evaluations that will be necessary to get an individual permit. Arch Coal faces a difficulty because it has equipment on site which, for economic reasons, it has to use soon. Companies who can plan their mining with enough lead time to do the studies, etc. to get a Corps permit could still do mountaintop removal mining even with the Corpsí position. Arch Coal is in a difficult position because it has a dragline that is all dressed up and no place to go.