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Groups Sue to Stop Eastern Kentucky Surface Mine

The Sierra Club and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in hopes of blocking a surface mine permit in eastern Kentucky.Coal company Leeco, Inc. (a subsidiary of James River Coal) is seeking the permit for a valley fill at the Stacy Branch mine on the border of Knott and Perry counties. A valley fill is created during mountaintop removal mining--the mountain is partially removed to reach coal seams, and then the dirt and rock (or "overburden") is disposed of in valleys.This is the first lawsuit that's been filed on the basis of health effects from coal mining. The environmental groups contend the Army Corps hasn't taken possible health effects from the mine into account when considering the permit. In a news release, they emphasize recent studies that have shown a correlation between mountaintop removal and birth defects, cancer, heart and lung disease and lower life expectancy. "As a family physician and public health educator who practiced in rural Kentucky for over 30 years, I am concerned about recent research showing that cancer, cardiovascular disease, birth defects and low birth weight babies occur at higher rates in people living near mountaintop removal coal mining sites. These communities also experience a lower overall quality of life and a lower life expectancy. These medical and public health concerns make it extremely important that we take the human health cost of such mining into account in all decisions about such mining practices," said Dr. John Patterson. The Environmental Protection Agency has already registered concerns with the permit. In December 2010, EPA's Region 4 office sent a letter to the Army Corps, outlining its concerns about the environmental effects the valley fill would have, and the Army Corps issued the permit on July 26 of this year. The EPA has veto power over the permits the Army Corps issues (but that veto power is up in the air after a judge overturned an EPA veto of the Spruce Mine in West Virginia earlier this year), but didn't exercise the power in this case.In the lawsuit, the groups ask the judge to determine the Army Corps violated the Clean Water Act by failing to consider human health and require the Corps to vacate the permit. A similar lawsuit was filed against the Army Corps for a permit issued to Raven Crest Contracting for a mine in Boone County, West Virginia.To read the lawsuit, click here.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.