MAC: Mines and Communities

Appeals Court Backs Interior's View of Mining Act

Published by MAC on 2003-06-04

Appeals Court Backs Interior's View of Mining Act

Environmental News Service (ENS)

June 4, 2003

Washington, DC - A federal appeals court upheld Tuesday a lower court ruling that surface damage from underground coal mining is not covered by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

In the original 1999 case, Citizens Coal Council v. Gale Norton, the group questioned the Department of the Interior's interpretation that a section of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act does not apply to underground mining. The Citizens Coal Council argued that the statute should protect landowners against subsidence, the collapse of rock and soil layers on surfaces above underground mines. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the Citizens Coal Council.

In their ruling, the three judges of the appeals court admitted that the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) is a "complex and often puzzling statute" that raises questions about interpretation. It was enacted by Congress to protect the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations and to strike a balance between environmental protection and coal supplies, they say.

"We find that the definition of 'surface coal mining operations' in SMCRA section 701(28) is ambiguous as to whether Congress intended it to include subsidence," the judges write. "We find the secretary's interpretation, while not necessarily the most natural one, is reasonable, and therefore we defer to it."

"This ruling safeguards the jobs of nearly 45,000 miners working in underground coal mines," said National Mining Association President and CEO Jack Gerard, "and of affordable, reliable electricity for millions of American homes and businesses that rely on coal based generation for their electricity."

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