updated 3/26/2007 10:09:56 AM ET 2007-03-26T14:09:56

A federal judge ruled Friday that the Army Corps of Engineers illegally issued permits for four mountaintop removal mines without adequately determining whether the environment would be harmed.

U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers rescinded the permits, which allow four mines operated by Massey Energy Co. to fill nearby valleys with dirt, rocks and other material removed to expose coal seams.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and two other environmental groups had sued to force the corps to perform more extensive environmental reviews before granting valley fill permits for the mines.

The corps had maintained that more extensive reviews weren't necessary for the permits.

Chambers remanded the permits to the corps for further consideration.

Messages left after hours for the corps and for Richmond, Va.-based Massey were not immediately returned.

The issue of mountaintop removal and valley fills has been argued in state and federal courts in the region for nearly a decade. Coal operators claim the practice is an efficient way to expose seams in mountainous coalfields.

Environmentalists call the technique destructive and point to a 2005 study that said mountaintop removal and valley fills had buried 1,200 miles of headwater streams in Appalachia.

The corps had argued that mitigation techniques, including restoring streams, would offset any harmful effects. Chambers, however, said the agency failed to assess the full impact of destroying headwater streams within a watershed.

"The evidence to date shows that the Corps has no scientific basis — no real evidence of any kind — upon which it bases its decisions to permit this permanent destruction to streams and headwaters," said Steve Roady, a lawyer with Washington-based Earthjustice, which represented the environmental groups.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he had not read the ruling and had no immediate comment. The association had intervened in the lawsuit.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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