Earth Week is off to a good start after two major rulings in two days mean we may start seeing less of this.
We’re only two days into Earth Week — if we must limit it to one week out of the year — but it sure is getting off to a great start. In the past two days, two major court rulings have underscored the need for increased scrutiny from the federal agency responsible for evaluating environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining according to the National Environmental Policy Act and issuing permits under the Clean Water Act.
Yesterday, the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals revoked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers use of Nationwide Permit 21 (NWP 21), a streamlined and inadequate process that has contributed to the expansion of mountaintop removal in Appalachia since 1992. Kentucky and West Virginia residents, with the support of groups including Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kentucky Waterways Alliance and the Kentucky Riverkeeper, have challenged the legality of NWP 21 in state and federal court for a decade.
In its ruling, the three-judge panel called the Corps’ actions “arbitrary and capricious” and found that the agency did not follow the applicable Clean Water Act (CWA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, which require it to document its assessment of environmental impacts and examine past impacts before issuing new permits. From the ruling:
Though we generally give greatest deference to an agency’s “complex scientific determination[s] within its area of special expertise,” we may not excuse an agency’s failure to follow the procedures required by duly promulgated regulations.
After opting for streamlined nationwide permitting, the Corps took the easier path of preparing an environmental assessment instead of an environmental impact statement. Having done so, it needed to follow the applicable CWA and NEPA regulations by documenting its assessment of environmental impacts and examining past impacts, respectively. Failing these regulatory prerequisites, the Corps leaves us with nothing more than its say-so that it meets CWA and NEPA standards.
According to the Corps, approximately 70 surface mining permits authorized under NWP 21 qualify for a five-year accommodation to “provide and equitable and less burdensome transition” for coal operators. Whatever its impact on existing mountaintop removal permits, the ruling acknowledges that when it comes to protecting Appalachia, the Corps “say-so” is insufficient.