Supreme Court Rejects Coal Industry Lawsuit, Defends EPA Veto of Mountaintop Removal Mine
Today the U.S. Supreme Court denied the coal mining industry’s request to hear a case against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for vetoing part of a permit for one of the largest and most harmful mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia’s history, the Spruce No. 1 mine. By declining to take the case the Supreme Court refused to reverse the lower court’s ruling that the EPA has full authority to protect clean water whenever necessary to prevent unacceptable environmental harm.
In October 1999, the Spruce No. 1 Mine became the subject of the first significant federal court decision on mountaintop removal mining, won by individual community members and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates and Public Justice). That case initiated years of controversy and litigation over this proposed mine. In the meantime, the science accumulated showing how devastating this type of mining is for local waters and communities.
In Jan. 2011, the EPA decided to veto the Spruce No. 1 Mine permit based on robust science showing the irreparable harm that would occur if the mining company were allowed to permanently bury and pollute natural headwater streams with mining waste. The permit would have allowed the Mingo Logan coal company to bury and destroy more than six miles of pristine mountain streams under mining waste dumps created from the destruction of more than 2,000 acres of land, releasing harmful pollutants into downstream waters that sustain local communities and wildlife. Appalachian citizen groups have been fighting to save the streams that would be destroyed by the Spruce Mine for more than a decade—as one of the largest, most harmful mountaintop removal mines ever proposed.
“The Spruce No. 1 mine is one of the largest and most destructive mountaintop removal mines ever proposed in Appalachia," said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice. "EPA’s decision to veto the dumping of waste from this mine was a decision to prevent the most extreme impacts of the most radical type of strip mining—the worst of the worst. The Clean Water Act, enacted with wide bipartisan and public support, gave EPA broad authority to step in and stop this type of wholesale destruction and pollution of U.S. waters. The Supreme Court refusal to hear industry’s baseless case confirms that the EPA has the clear legal authority to prevent the dumping of waste whenever it would cause unacceptable harm to communities and the environment.”
In this instance, the EPA decided to veto the Spruce No. 1 mine permit after substantial new science had come to light. The EPA considered more than 50,000 written comments before issuing the veto. The vast majority—70 percent—supported the EPA’s veto.
“The coal industry has falsely painted the Spruce mine veto as an example of EPA overreach and a ‘war on coal,’ when in fact EPA’s authority to veto this permit is obvious from the face of the statute and EPA’s decision is based on clear scientific evidence of serious environmental harm from mining,” said Jim Hecker, environmental enforcement director at Public Justice and co-counsel in the 1998 case that initially blocked the Spruce mine
In 2012, the D.C. district court ruled that the EPA lacked authority to veto the permit after the Corps had issued it, without addressing the scientific merits of the EPA’s decision. In 2013, the D.C. Circuit (in an opinion by Judges Henderson, Griffith and Kavanaugh) unanimously reversed the district court’s ruling and upheld the EPA’s authority to veto whenever there is unacceptable harm, including after a permit has been issued. The full D.C. Circuit then denied the coal company’s petition for en banc review.
“This is a very gratifying outcome for water drinkers everywhere," said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “The Court agrees that Congress gave EPA the authority to protect our waters from devastating harm, harm the proposed massive Spruce mountaintop removal mine would wreak if its permit was not vetoed. By protecting clean water, EPA is ultimately protecting human health, and as recent events have underscored, here in central West Virginia we cannot depend on the coal industry, nor state government to protect human health by protecting clean water. We need EPA to be able to keep a check on things.”
Today’s denial of certiorari reaffirms what the D.C. Circuit decided—that the EPA has authority to veto a harmful permit after it is issued. The case now goes back to the district court to review the scientific merits of the EPA’s veto decision in this specific instance.
"It's absurd that we have to fight this hard to protect one site from mountaintop removal when there are so many threatening the health of mountain communities,” said Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch. "We have to rely on the EPA to do the job clearly entrusted to them, because the West Virginia Dept. of Environmental Protection long ago abdicated their mission. To struggle so long for one site is all the more reason that we need to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, HR 526."
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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