A coalition of environmental groups are suing to stop a mountaintop removal coal mining operation in Raleigh County.
In the lawsuit filed Friday, Coal River Mountain Watch, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club allege mine operator Republic Energy is illegally operating on the more than 2,000-acre Eagle No. 2 surface mine.
The lawsuit centers on the validity of the mining permit granted to Republic Energy a decade ago. Under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation and Act, a company must begin operations at a mine within three years of a permit being issued, or ask for an extension from state environmental regulators.
Environmental groups allege Republic Energy waited nearly four years before asking for its first renewal.
According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection repeatedly allowed the Eagle 2 mining permit to remain valid, despite statutory requirements under federal law.
The state DEP did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit alleges the mine’s permit has expired and the company must stop operations until it gets a new mining permit.
“Allowing an operator to sit on a permit for 10 years and then suddenly start operating is really counter to the whole purpose of the Surface Mining [Control and Reclamation] Act, which is that when a permit is issued the regulator is supposed to consider the most up to date information on the impacts the mine will have and area that’s going to impacted,” said Peter Morgan, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club.
In an statement, a spokesperson for Contura Energy, which recently merged with Alpha Natural Resources, the parent company of Republic Energy, said the company believed “we are in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations.”
Coal River Mountain Watch Executive Director Vernon Haltom disagreed. In an interview, he said the company and DEP are ignoring provisions of the law to the detriment of communities in the region.
According to DEP’s records, the Eagle 2 mining permits most recent renewable expired in June 2018. Haltom said the company did not take adequate measures to ask for an extension.
“They didn’t even go through all the steps they needed had it been a valid permit,” he said. Last month, DEP issued a Notice of Violation to Republic Energy for failing to renew their mining permit.
“It actually would be funny if mountaintop removal weren’t such a deadly process that kills people who live nearby,” Haltom added.
Research has linked the practice, which includes blasting up to 800 feet of mountain, to higher rates of death for those living nearby and an uptick in cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, birth defects and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, such as bronchitis and emphysema.
In August 2017, the Interior Department halted a National Academy of Sciences study into the health impacts of mountaintop coal mining.