Mountaintop removal is a highly efficient but destructive form of strip mining that blasts apart mountain ridge tops to expose multiple coal seams. The resulting rock and debris is dumped in streams, creating so-called valley fills. Spruce No. 1 would have buried nearly 7 miles of streams.
It was only the 13th time since 1972 that the EPA had used the veto authority and the first time it had acted on a previously permitted mine. EPA said it reserves the power for rare and unacceptable cases, but Jackson declared the action "incorrect and unreasonable."
EPA appealed, arguing that while one section of the Clean Water Act lets the corps issue permits for the dumping of fill material, another gives EPA the unambiguous right to "prohibit, deny, restrict or withdraw specification of fill disposal sites."
That power was created in a legislative compromise the EPA says was intended to let the agency do its job and prevent unacceptable environmental damage. The EPA says it can invoke that authority before, during or after the corps' permitting process.
Arch, however, argues EPA has no such power, and that the wording of the law makes a clear difference between authority to issue a "permit" and authority to create the "specifications" under which those permits are issued.
In supportive briefs, the chamber and its allies say the Section 404 permit process is "painstakingly detailed" in corps regulations, and that lets investors make reasonable cost projections for new projects.
"An adverse ruling in this case would change all of that," they argue, accusing the EPA of trying to "carve out a role for itself as unfettered overseer of every Section 404 permit."
State regulators say Jackson's ruling should also be upheld because the EPA's action dramatically and improperly expands its role in the mining regulatory system.
Huffman noted the DEP has fought the EPA and prevailed in other cases where it tried to usurp state authority, pointing specifically to a battle over the EPA's attempt to set a regionwide water quality standard for surface mine discharges.
A federal judge ruled in that case, too, that EPA "overstepped its own statutory authority and infringed on that of the state regulatory authorities," he said.
"EPA needs to play by the rules and follow the law."