Coal Tattoo


President Barack Obama speaks at an event about energy security, Wednesday, March 31, 2010, at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Obama’s energy speech today focused on his proposal to open vast off-shore areas to oil drilling.

But in the speech, the president gave another nod to “clean coal technologies” being part of America’s energy future:

We’re here to talk about America’s energy security, an issue that’s been a priority for my administration since the day I took office.  Already, we’ve made the largest investment in clean energy in our nation’s history.  It’s an investment that’s expected to create or save more than 700,000 jobs across America — jobs manufacturing advanced batteries for more efficient vehicles; upgrading the power grid so that it’s smarter and it’s stronger; doubling our nation’s capacity to generate renewable electricity from sources like the wind and the sun.

But we have to do more.  We need to make continued investments in clean coal technologies and advanced biofuels.  A few weeks ago, I announced loan guarantees to break ground on America’s first new nuclear facility in three decades, a project that will create thousands of jobs.  And in the short term, as we transition to cleaner energy sources, we’ve still got to make some tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines.

China Mine Flood

Rescue workers wait to push an iron trolley loaded with pipes at the shift of the Wangjialing coal mine, Xiangning township, about 400 miles (650 kilometers) southwest of Beijing, Wednesday, March 31, 2010. Safety rules and danger warnings had been ignored in a rush to open a coal mine in northern China where flooding of the shafts has left 153 workers trapped for nearly three days, a government safety body said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

The New York Times reports this morning that hope is fading for the 153 coal miners trapped by a flood in northern China:

As of Tuesday night, the work of five pumps had reduced the water level in the mine by only a few inches. A steady rain did not make the work any easier and sent more water soaking into the group. According to Xinhua, the official news agency, the men were said to be trapped in nine different tunnels. More than 100 others escaped as the shafts filled with water on Sunday.

If rescue efforts fail, the accident would be the deadliest since 2007, when 172 miners were killed in a mine flood in eastern Shandong Province.

Chinese coal mines have long been perilous places to work. Last year, more than 2,600 people died in accidents, many of them in Shanxi Province, the heart of China’s coal industry.

My buddy Rob McGee at the U.S. Mine Rescue Association has put together a chart with maps of a dozen serious mining accidents in China in March 2010 alone.

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Gov. Manchin dials down his pro-coal rhetoric

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Last Friday’s big announcement that the U.S. EPA was moving ahead with a possible veto of the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history brought predictable reactions from most of the state’s political leaders.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said the move showed the EPA:

… Has no regard for the economic hardship created by their policies, or for the judgment and authority of the state and federal agencies involved.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said:

This is an unprecedented, unjustified and undeserved decision and I completely disagree with it as I told EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson directly.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said:

I have said this before, and will say it again: it is wrong and unfair for the EPA to change the rules for a permit that is already active.

And, it really came as no big shock that the statement issued by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was more measured and, well, a lot more sensible:

The announcement by the EPA today of its Proposed Determination to exercise its veto authority over the Spruce #1 Mine permit begins a process that enables the company and the public to comment on the matter in writing and at public hearings. I would strongly encourage all parties to seek a balanced, fair, reasonable compromise.

EPA Administrator Jackson reiterated to me that more wide-ranging guidance is forthcoming in the near future, providing clarity relating to water quality issues and mining permits. I encouraged her to move forward as soon as possible so those seeking approval of permits can fully understand the parameters for acceptable activity under the Clean Water Act.

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APTOPIX China Mine Flood
Relatives of mine worker weeps at the Wangjialing coal mine in Xiangning township, Shanxi province, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Beijing, Tuesday, March 30, 2010. Workers reported underground water leaks days before a flood coursed through a coal mine in northern China, where 153 people remained trapped Tuesday in potentially one of the country’s worst mining disasters, a worker and state media said.

More than 150 coal miners remain trapped underground in China today, as anger and frustration is growing among their families — and reporters are surfacing that warning signs were ignored by mine management.

A Reuters report, via The Washington Post, says:

Over 1,000 rescuers fought against the clock at a Chinese coal mine where 153 workers were trapped by flooding in what could be one of the worst disasters to hit the deadly industry in recent years.

Anxious families at the Wangjialing mine in northern Shanxi province struggled to keep up hope as high water levels stymied pumping efforts.

“I have been here for two or three days and I haven’t seen them taking any action, only a little water was pumped out today,” Xiao Shihong, a mother of four whose husband and two brothers-in-law are all trapped in the mine, said on Tuesday.

“Now it is the third day, but we still don’t know anything.”

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APTOPIX China Mine Flood

Mine workers look on as rescuers, unseen unload metal pipes at Wangjialing coal mine, Xiangning township, Shanxi province, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Beijing, Monday, March 29, 2010. Rescuers working in a drizzling rain raced Monday to free 153 coal miners trapped deep underground by a flood that may have started when workers digging a new mine in northern China accidentally broke into a network of old, water-filled shafts. (AP Photo/ Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Rescuers in northern China continued today to try to free 153 coal miners trapped underground when they cut into an adjacent network of old, water-filled shafts.

There’s coverage from The New York Times, the U.K. Telegraph, The Associated Press, and the BBC, among others.

Apparently, 261 miners were underground when the breakthrough occurred and 108 managed to escape.

APTOPIX China Mine Flood

Rescuers unload metal pipes and pumping equipment onto a metal trolley at Wangjialing coal mine in Xinagning, in north China’s Shanxi province, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Beijing, Monday.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just issued its “proposed determination” to block the Clean Water Act permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

EPA has posed this proposed determination document on its Region 3 Web site, along with a Technical Support document and other materials about the Spruce Mine.

According to EPA:

EPA has reason to believe that the Spruce No. 1 Mine, as currently authorized, could result in unacceptable adverse effects to fish and wildlife resources.

EPA is concerned that the project could result in unacceptable adverse effects on the aquatic ecosystem, particularly to fish and wildlife resources and water quality. EPA is also concerned that the project may have cumulative adverse impacts. EPA believes that the Spruce No. 1 project, in conjunction with numerous other mining operations either under construction or proposed for the Coal River sub-basin, may contribute to the cumulative loss of water quality, aquatic and forest resources. The Coal River sub-basin is already heavily mined and demonstrates impacts associated with surface coal mining.

There’s also a press release available that includes comments from Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin:

Coal, and coal mining, is part of our nation’s energy future, and for that reason EPA has made repeated efforts to foster dialogue and find a responsible path forward. But we must prevent the significant and irreversible damage that comes from mining pollution — and the damage from this project would be irreversible. This recommendation is consistent with our broader Clean Water Act efforts in Central Appalachia. EPA has a duty under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on these waters for drinking, fishing and swimming.

As I explained in an earlier post, this EPA notice starts another long process of review and debate — including a mandatory public hearing if EPA finds a significant degree of public interest — before EPA would actually veto the permit.


Arch Coal just issued the following statement —

After various efforts over the past few months to address EPA’s concerns with the Spruce permit, Arch Coal is disappointed that EPA has chosen to take the unprecedented action to initiate the veto process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act against a validly issued and existing permit.  The Spruce permit is the most scrutinized and fully considered permit in West Virginia’s history.  The 13-year permitting process included the preparation of a full environmental impact statement, the only permit in the eastern coal fields to ever undergo such review.  We are evaluating all possible options for relief from the government’s actions and intend to vigorously defend the Spruce permit by all legal means.  Further, we intend to oppose the government’s efforts to extend the stay in Judge Chambers’ court with respect to our pending motion for summary judgment.

Updated 2:

Department of Justice lawyers have filed papers asking U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to stay legal proceedings — in a case where environmental groups challenged the Corps’ approval of the Spruce Mine — pending completion of EPA’s possible veto action.


The Daily Mail’s got the big screaming headline this morning: Officials fear huge mine may be nixed.

Indeed, today is yet another deadline in U.S. District Court in Huntington in the case of the Spruce Mine, the largest mountaintop removal mining permit in West Virginia history. And most everybody I’ve talked to says the same thing my buddy Ry Rivard’s sources tell him: That whatever EPA files in federal court or otherwise publicly announces will not be good news for Arch Coal Inc. and its supporters.

But believe it or not, despite more than a decade of debate over this particular mountaintop removal permit, whatever EPA decides today will still only be the beginning of a long process of deciding if EPA will block the Spruce Mine.

The Clean Water Act gives EPA extraordinary authority to veto permitting decisions made by the federal Army Corps of Engineers. And given that extraordinary authority, the law and its implementing regulations also set out a detailed — and time-consuming — process that EPA officials must follow to do so.

So just to review, where are we in that process?

Last October, EPA regional officials notified the Corps of Engineers under the regulations that they intended to issue a public notice of a proposed determination to “restrict or prohibit the discharge of dredged and/or fill material” (that means veto the permit) by the Spruce Mine. In doing so, EPA cited its “very serious concerns regarding the scale and extent of significant environmental and water quality impacts” associated with the mining proposal.

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GWagnerWhile the campaign continues against making it easier for disabled coal miners to receive their black lung benefits, there is precious little discussion from those attacking this effort by Sen. Robert C. Byrd about how to actually end this terrible disease. Isn’t that what the mining industry should really be focused on?

And yesterday, the Obama administration passed up another effort to get back on track with its initial promise to tighten the legal limit for coal dust in underground mines.

During a Web chat about MSHA priorities, agency deputy assistant secretary Greg Wagner was asked for a time frame for when MSHA would tighten the limit. Greg responded:

The regulatory agenda indicates our commitment to publish a proposed rule to reduce miners’ exposure to coal mine dust in the fall of 2010. The details of the rule will be available then.

Remember, MSHA is still talking about reducing “exposure” not about actually reducing the legal limit. Stay tuned …

Rep. Rahall quizzes OSMRE Director Joe Pizarchik

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A subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing today to discuss budget proposals for a variety of Interior Department agencies, including the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Coal Tattoo has previously suggested that Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., might use his leadership position to push more of a public discussion about OSMRE’s role in dealing with major coal industry issues in Appalachia such as, well, mountaintop removal.

If you happened to watch the hearing Webcast, perhaps you wondered — as I did — if this subcommittee even knows that part of its job is to provide oversight of OSMRE. Subcommittee Chairman James Costa, D-Calif., ran the hearing and repeatedly butchered agency Director Joe Pizarchik’s name.

At first, it looked like Chairman Rahall wasn’t even going to attend.  I’m told he had back-to-back meetings, but decided to attend when the hearing ran longer than expected. So at the very end, Rahall got a chance to show what issues that OSMRE is dealing with he is concerned about … I’ll let you all read and draw your own conclusions …

Rep. Rahall opening statement:

… Coal has always been under attack. It doesn’t matter the administration it doesn’t matter the time of day, it doesn’t matter what year it is. Coal has consistently been under attack since coal was ever invented or discovered. And it’s not simply from, as current administration critics will claim, not simply from the environmental community. I refer to the huge media blitzes that we all see each and every day, whether it’s print media, TV media, or whatever, by other fossil fuel sources that are clearly anti-coal in their content, when you read what they’re saying. So, let’s be clear about that fact.

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This just in from the office of Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., today said he welcomed as a “good start” the announcement by Massey Energy that they are pledging $1 million toward the construction of a new $8.6 million Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County.

Byrd last October blasted Massey Energy officials for their refusal to provide assistance to efforts to replace the existing Marsh Fork Elementary School because of potential health and safety concerns.  The Raleigh County School is adjacent to a coal silo constructed by Massey Energy, and sits at the foot of the company’s mountain top pond that holds back hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic coal slurry.

“This is a welcome and good start by officials at Massey Energy in announcing their pledge of $1 million for the construction of a new $8.6 million Marsh Fork Elementary School,” said Byrd.

“As Massey Energy moves to acquire Cumberland Resources through a stock offering, and helps pay for mountain top mining music concerts, I would hope that they will continue to keep the welfare of the young students at Marsh Fork Elementary in their hearts and in their minds.  These children are our future and it is my hope that all the necessary funds will be made available to construct a relocated Marsh Fork Elementary School soon,” Byrd added.

When Coal Tattoo last left our friend Steve Roberts, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce president’s political strategy was that state representatives in Washington should bottle up health-care reform unless President Obama ordered EPA to start approving new mountaintop removal mining permits.

Now that health-care reform has passed — a move that my colleague Kate Long reports will greatly benefit rural West Virginians — Roberts’ plan appears to be to try to convince us all how terribly wrong Sen. Robert C. Byrd was to make it easier for disabled coal miners or their widows to navigate the difficult process of obtaining their federal black lung benefits.

But in doing so, Roberts is playing pretty fast and loose with the facts of what the black lung language Sen. Byrd inserted into the health-care bill actually says.

I’m speaking, of course, of comments Roberts made in today’s editions of the Daily Mail:

What is so wrong about the Byrd amendment is that it is so out of date. We now have medical technology through which we can determine whether a person has the black lung disease and if so, what the impact of that disease is on a person’s health and wellbeing.

The Byrd amendment ignores sound science and simply says that anybody who has been in or around a coal mine and who has any level of impairment – that person perhaps smoked, that person perhaps had a congenital lung disease – it makes no difference, that person would automatically be entitled to black lung benefits.

If that person dies from old age or in a car wreck or from having been a chronic smoker, the Byrd amendment would provide that the surviving spouse would receive benefits.

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Well, it sounds like no one from the Obama administration took my suggestion and made a major announcement about their plans concerning fighting black lung disease during yesterday’s Coal Act anniversary celebration.

But the Labor Department did get a nice letter out of President Obama for the occasion. The President said, among other things:

In communities across America, the dangers of mining have been exposed through disasters and terrible losses of life. These tragedies were once all too common in our country, revealing the need for occupational safety measures to protect miners.

Since becoming law in 1969, the Coal Act has improved working conditions, reduced fatalities, and addressed pressing health concerns faced by miners such as black lung disease. Guarding the health and security of our workers preserves the long-term health of our citizens, our economy and our Nation.

Of course, the law also aimed to eliminate all black lung disease — something that is far from being achieved — and so far the Obama administration has declined to get back on track with its initial plan to tighten the legal limit for coal dust that causes this disease.

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Massey pledges $1 million for Marsh Fork school

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Photo by Britney Williams, courtesy Coal River Mountain Watch.

My buddy Davin White just posted a story on the Gazette Web site reporting that Massey Energy has pledged to contribute $1 million toward construction of a new Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County.

I’ve posted a copy of Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s letter to the school board here. Blankenship comments:

We’re proud of our longstanding partnership with Marsh Fork Elementary School and are pleased to partner with you to provide the students with a new school. We understand that you wish to replace the current school because it is over 70 years old and located in the floodplain. We hope our contribution will assist you.

Coal Tattoo has written about Marsh Fork Elementary many times before, describing its location adjacent to a Massey coal-processing plant and just down the hollow from a huge Massey impoundment. See previous posts here, here and here.

Davin tells me that the county has $1 million and also expects a $10,000 donation from the group Coal River Mountain Watch — so they’re asking for almost $6.6 million in state money. A decision by the School Building Authority is expected next month.

Early this afternoon, officials from the U.S. Department of Labor and its  Mine Safety and Health Administration will gather in Washington for a celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

Wait … The 40th anniversary? Wasn’t that last year? Well, yes. The law was signed on Dec. 30, 1969. But, MSHA’s celebration is officially to mark the effective date of the law, which for most provisions was March 30, 2010.

Wouldn’t today’s event be a great opportunity for the Obama administration to make some major announcement … Oh, like maybe that MSHA was going to get back on track with its initial promise to tighten the legal limit on coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease?

Folks often point to the Farmington Disaster as one of the defining events that pushed Congress to pass the 1969 Act. But my friend Paul Nyden here at the Gazette has chronicled the major role that disabled miners and the drive for justice for black lung victims played in passage of the law.

And in fact, the law set out a rigorous schedule for addressing black lung, aimed at eliminating the disease forever.

First, lawmakers set this initial limit:

Effective on the operative date of this title, each operator shall continuously maintain the average concentration of respirable dust in the mine atmosphere during each shift to which each miner in the active workings of such mine is exposed at or below 3.0 milligrams of respirable dust per cubic meter of air.

And then,within three years, the legal limit was to drop to 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter.

Finally, Congress demanded that regulators set a schedule for reducing the dust limits to a level:

… Which will prevent new incidences of respiratory disease and the future development of such disease in any person.

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Passage of the landmark health-care reform bill also means success for Sen Robert C. Byrd’s efforts to streamline the process for coal miners to obtain black lung benefits.

According to a press release from Byrd’s office, the senator inserted these two provisions in the legislation

— In cases where a miner has accumulated 15 or more years of coal mine employment, and there is medical evidence of totally disabling lung disease, there will be a legal presumption that the miner and his widow would be entitled to benefits — unless there is evidence proving that the miner’s disease was not black lung, or that the disease did not result from coal mine employment; and

— For widows of coal miners who spouses suffered from totally-disabling black lung disease and were collecting benefits, they would no longer have to reapply to retain their modest benefits.

It’s important to note that what this legislation does is reverse major cuts to black lung eligibility made during the Reagan administration in 1981. (See comments below for more discussion of this).

Miners or their widows seeking benefits have to navigate a very complicated system that often denies them simply because of the many adjudicatory hurdles.  The Daily Mail and the Chamber of Commerce campaigned against this legislation, in some cases wildly misstating what was in the bill. One Daily Mail editorial, for example, said:

Byrd inserted into the Democratic health insurance bill a provision under which anyone who worked in coal mines for 15 or more years would be presumed to have black lung disease, and therefore be entitled to compensation.

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When last we left the Daily Mail’s Don Surber, he was having a hard time understanding fractions. See Basic climate science update: Debunking Don Surber.

Over the weekend, Don chimed in with more disinformation about climate change, in a column headlined “What should our temperature be? Let’s examine the evidence of global warmth.” The problem is, the column does anything but examine scientific evidence, and at the end devolves into some kind of anti-tax thing that has nothing to do with climate science.

As I’ve written before, I promised myself when I started Coal Tattoo that I wouldn’t spend too much time debunking the Daily Mail’s coverage of these important issues. So, I’ll just address a couple of the things Don wrote here, and then we can all move on.

First, Don asks, “Are not global temperatures cyclical?” and he continues:

There is evidence that global temperatures may have been higher 800 to 1,300 years ago. One of the climatologists implicated in the Climategate scandal, in which countervailing data was suppressed, has admitted that this could be true, although he limited it to the Northern Hemisphere.

OK, now Don offers no evidence whatsoever that any “data was suppressed” by anybody. And in fact, the evidence shows otherwise.

But to Don’s larger point, about whether global temperatures are cyclical. This is a common climate skeptic argument to write off this issue as just evidence of a global temperature cycle,  but that’s just not correct. As this study shows, warming during the period Don cites appears to have been regional, rather than global, in nature, and to have been sporadic rather than continuous.

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Word just in early this afternoon that environmental groups have cut a deal with the Obama administration to drop — at least for now — their litigation over the controversial “buffer zone” rule governing mountaintop removal and other coal mining.

Here’s how Earthjustice put it in a news release just issued:

Several Appalachian conservation groups, represented by environmental public interest law firm Earthjustice, have decided to put on hold their lawsuit challenging the Bush administration’s repeal of the “stream buffer zone rule,” which was originally designed to protect Appalachian streams from harmful practices used in surface coal mining.  The hold is based on an agreement of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to revise the stream buffer zone rule.  The groups will decide whether to continue litigation after the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees OSM, issues a proposed rule slated to come out Feb. 28, 2011.

Recall that there were two different lawsuits (see here and here) filed against the Interior Department over Bush administration changes that citizen groups said essentially gutted the buffer zone rule, a measure intended to protect streams from strip-mining damage but never enforced by federal or state agencies that allowed wholesale burial of streams with waste rock and dirt.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (pictured above) has announced plans to rewrite the buffer zone rule to do away with at least some of the Bush changes. but, as I’ve written before, the Obama administration has declined to say publicly how exactly it plans to rewrite the rule, but has backed the WVDEP’s reading of  the West Virginia rule, a possible indication of that the Obama rule will end up being much more industry-friendly than environmentalists had hoped.

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It was a dramatic moment in a dramatic hearing, held just weeks after 12 miners died at Sago and only a few days after two more died at Aracoma.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the son of a coal miner, wondering why miners at those operations weren’t equipped with simple text-messaging devices that might have saved their lives. Of course, the answer was that the Bush administration had rejected calls from labor and some in the industry to require such devices — and without a specific regulatory mandate, coal operators didn’t act. Responding to the industry inaction, Harkin said:

You hate to regulate everything, but if they’re not going to do it, doggone it, we ought to make them.

But, it took another disaster — the deaths of five miners at Kentucky Darby — before Congress would step in and require two-way wireless communications devices as part of the MINER Act, the first major rewrite of federal mine safety and health laws since 1977.

So what’s happened since then? Well, as we reported in a major Sunday Gazette-Mail story yesterday, fewer than 1 in 10 underground coal mines nationwide has actually met the ultimate requirements of the MINER Act for two-way wireless communications systems.

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Friday roundup, March 19, 2010

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China Coal Mine Fire

In this photo released by the Xinhua news agency, men gather near a coal mine where a fire occurred on Monday night in Xinmi City in Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan province, on Tuesday March 16, 2010. The electrical fire at the illegal coal mine in central China has left 25 people dead, the latest fatal accident to rock the country’s mining industry. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zhao Peng)

Twenty-five workers were killed earlier this week in a coal-mine fire in central China. Four top local government officials and three mine inspection officials were fired after the incident. According to China Daily, the mine had resumed production without obtaining a license.

There’s been an interesting story going on out west, where Arch Coal expanded its reserve base in the Powder River Basin, by successfully bidding $85.8 million for the right to mine 8,300 acers of state-owned coal in southeastern Montana.

The Billings Gazette had a story about how money from the state lease might — and might not — be used.

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U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers today gave the Obama administration another week to decide what it’s going to do about the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history.

Judge Chambers issued this three-page order, granting EPA a requested stay of legal proceedings on the permit until March 26 — next Friday.

The judge noted that Arch Coal’s Mingo Logan subsidiary had not formally oppose the requested stay, and the judge refused the company’s request to include language specifying that EPA will not receive additional delays unless it actually moves forward with its plans to veto the 2,300-acre permit.

However, the judge’s order did say:

The Court understands Mingo Logan’s frustration with the delay in this action. Moreover, the Court agrees with the company that, at some point in the near future, the U.S. EPA must decide whether to proceed with its § 404(c) process and, if so, that the agency must issue a public notice to that effect.


… The Court GRANTS the stay sought by the Corps, without the conditions requested by Mingo Logan, FINDING that, in the context of the multi-year permit review at issue in this litigation, and in light of the company’s repeated consent to the prior requested deadline extensions and stays, a brief extension of the existing stay is appropriate. Such a stay will allow the U.S. EPA an opportunity to complete its determination of whether and how to exercise its §404(c) authority, which, as discussed in the Court’s October 21, 2009, Order, is not only discretionary, but is also likely to affect the instant litigation.

Further, in light of the repeated and often uncontested postponements in this action, and because Mingo Logan may continue to conduct limited mining operations pursuant to the Spruce No. 1 Permit, such an extension will not result in substantial prejudice to Mingo Logan.