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Federal court invalidates EPA water guidelines in Appalachia mining dispute

The US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [official website] infringed on the authority given to state regulators by the Clean Water Act [text; EPA backgrounder], the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) and other surface-mining laws when the agency established water quality criteria [memorandum, PDF] for coal mining in the Appalachia region. Judge Reggie Walton [official profile] granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs, who include West Virginia, Kentucky [official websites], the Kentucky Coal Association, the National Mining Association (NMA) [advocacy websites] and other petitioners. Walton agreed with their argument that even though the EPA claims its guidelines were not mandatory, the agency's enforcement of those guidelines as strict regulations did not comply with federal law. Walton did not opine on the sensitive issue of how best to serve the environment:

The Court is not unappreciative of the viable interests asserted by all parties to this litigation. How to best strike a balance between, on the one hand, the need to preserve the verdant landscapes and natural resources of Appalachia and, on the other hand, the economic role that coal mining plays in the region is not, however, a question for the Court to decide. In this litigation, the sole inquiry for the Court is the legality of the Final Guidance, and, for the reasons set forth above, that inquiry yields the conclusion that the EPA has overstepped its statutory authority under the CWA and the SMCRA, and infringed on the authority afforded state regulators by those statutes.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear [official website] praised the ruling [press release] as a "victory for coal miners who have seen mines close and their jobs put in jeopardy due, in part, to the actions of the federal EPA." The guidelines in question restricted the practice of dumping waste from surface mine blasting into Appalachian valley waterways, which environmental advocates claim destroys the environment.

The EPA has been forced to deal with several defeats over the past year. In October a federal judge similarly ruled [JURIST report] against the agency regarding its process for granting permits used by coal companies for mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. There, in a separate victory for the NMA, the court likewise found a violation of the CWA, and ordered that the EPA's 2009 guidelines be set aside so that all pre-2009 guidelines could be restored. In an out-of-court defeat last September the US House of Representatives [official website] passed [JURIST report] the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act 2011 [text, PDF], a bill that essentially blocks a number of proposed EPA regulations aimed at reducing emissions.

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