updated 6/14/2007 4:03:31 PM ET 2007-06-14T20:03:31

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that using settling ponds to remove sediment from streams at mountaintop removal coal mines violates the Clean Water Act.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers jeopardizes an industrywide practice that's been used for decades. Chambers also ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have the authority to allow mines to discharge sediment into settling ponds.

The corps has long allowed mountaintop removal mines to build settling ponds just below valleys that have been filled with rock and dirt removed to expose shallow coal seams. The corps has maintained that those stretches are wastewater treatment ponds and not waters of the United States.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, which is representing the corps, declined to comment Wednesday.

The decision came in a lawsuit brought by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and two other groups. In an earlier ruling in the case, Chambers held that the corps violated federal law by issuing valley fill permits for four mountaintop removal mines without adequately determining whether the environment would be harmed.

Chambers' earlier ruling has raised numerous questions in the coal industry about the future of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. While decried by environmentalists, the practice is embraced by the industry because it is a generally less expensive and more efficient method of removing coal compared with underground mines.

All four mines are operated by subsidiaries of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co. A spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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