The coal mining industry and the Corps of Engineers won a victory when a federal appeals court ruled the Corps didn't exceed its authority in permitting a coal company to place spoil in Kentucky valleys. In its Jan. 29 decision in the case, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned a district court ruling that said the Corps went too far in issuing a fill permit.

The case is another development in the long legal and regulatory battle over the Corps' wetlands permitting authority under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. In 2000, the Corps allowed Martin Coal Co. to put mining spoil in 27 valleys in Kentucky, filling about 6.3 miles of streams, the appellate court decision says.

In 2001, a nonprofit group, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, sued in federal court, contending that the Corps had violated the Administrative Procedures Act and the Clean Water statute by issuing the permit to Martin Coal.

In May 2002, the district court ruled in favor of the Kentuckians group, saying that the Corps' Section 404 authority doesn't extend to cover "waste material discharged solely to dispose of waste." The district court also issued a permanent injunction, barring the Corps from issuing "any further [Section] 404 permits that have no primary purpose or use but the disposal of waste." The Corps appealed.

In the Jan. 29 ruling, the appeals court said the Corps didn't violate federal law in issuing the permit to Martin Coal and also said the district court's view on the definition of "fill material" was incorrect. In addition, it removed the injunction.

Jack Gerard, the National Mining Association's president and CEO, says his group is "deeply gratified" by the appellate court decision. He adds, "The livelihoods of thousands of hard-working people throughout [the central Appalachian region] have bee safeguarded...and millions of homes and businesses that rely on coal-based electricity are oce again assured of reliable and affordable energy."

Patty Wallace, a member of the Kentuckians organization, which is based in London, Ky., said, "It is sad and scary that the court could have such a callous disregard for the lives and well-being of people in the coalfields. While the judges and lawyers argue the technicalities and interpretations of the law, strip mining is destroying our mountains and streams and taking away a future for our children."

The Kentuckians group says it is too early to say what its next move in the case may be, but it says it expects litigation to continue in a variety of places and that it will continue to push for Congress to clarify what the Clean Water Act intended on waste dumping.