Pikeville — Federal officials have blocked International Coal Group from expanding a mountaintop removal operation in eastern Kentucky after environmental groups challenged the permit for the project.
The groups say the expansion would bury streams and creeks leading into the Kentucky River, a water source for more than a million people.
A federal lawsuit filed last month by the Sierra Club and Kentucky Waterway Alliance alleged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the Clean Water and the National Environmental Protection acts by issuing a permit that allows ICG to expand its 960-acre mine in Leslie County by roughly 1,000 acres and construct valley fills. The suit sought an injunction against the expansion.
The Corps of Engineers suspended the permit Dec. 26 as officials review the merits of the permit. The lawsuit, however, is pending in court.
"Opponents of coal mining are attempting to shut down the industry in Kentucky on the basis of this challenge, so we are not disappointed that the Corps chose to take adequate time to evaluate the documentation on which the permit decision was made," ICG spokesman Ira Gamm said on Wednesday.
Mountaintop removal mining is a highly efficient practice that involves using explosives and massive equipment to remove rock and dirt and expose coal seams. The debris then is dumped into nearby valleys.
Gamm said eastern Kentucky's steep terrain makes valley fills necessary for all types of coal mining. Fighting the pending lawsuit is "critical to a significant part of Kentucky's economy," he said.
Sierra Club spokesman Oliver Bernstein said the corps' suspension of the permit was encouraging but too late to prevent ICG from damaging the mine site through rock blasting.
"The suspension will, however, prevent ICG from dumping waste into additional valleys mentioned in the challenge," Bernstein added.
The challenge is similar to a West Virginia case in which a federal judge ruled the corps violated the same federal laws by issuing valley fill permits for several Massey Energy Co. mountaintop removal mines without extensive environmental reviews. The corps had maintained that more extensive reviews weren't necessary for the permits and that mitigation techniques such as restoring streams would offset losses.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.