ABINGDON, Va. – Mountaintop removal could be ended by as early as next year, said a leader in an environmental group working to halt the destructive mining practices.

“Now there is an increasingly powerful and vocal national movement to stop mountaintop removal,” said Matt Wasson, an ecologist and director of programs for Appalachian Voices. “I’m saying we’re going to have it stopped by the end of next year … the end of 2009.”

“Mountaintop removal” is, to some, a controversial term. It refers to the blasting away of mountain ridges to get to the coal underneath, a process that evolved with technological advancements over the decades from traditional contour mining.

What makes this type of mining cost-effective is a valley-fill permit, which allows the overburden – dirt and rock removed to expose the coal – to be dumped into adjacent valleys.

The practice has been criticized as degrading to the environment and hazardous to nearby residents, who must endure the noise, dust and danger of blasting on the mountains above their homes, as well as flooding when stream courses are changed.

“Mountaintop removal mining is a national disgrace,” said Aaron Isherwood, staff attorney for the Sierra Club. “If the American people knew what was happening in Appalachia, I feel certain that they would demand an end to this practice.”

Coal producers argue that their industry is one of the nation’s most regulated – and as long as they follow regulations, they should be allowed to extract the fuel that fires half of the nation’s electricity generation.

Wasson pins his hopes on two distinct possibilities – a pending U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on a West Virginia court case and the election of a new U.S. president who will take office in January.

Other activists agree that both have the potential to put a stop to the issuance of new permits for mountaintop removal mining.

“I think if we get a new president, It’ll be stopped, and I guess we’re going to get a new president by next year,” said Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. Legal ramifications

With a long list of plaintiffs and defendants, the West Virginia lawsuit seeks to put a stop to valley-fill permits, which are issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Central to the issue is the question of whether the discard from mining should be considered waste under the 1977 Clean Water Act, which limits the release of pollutants into streams.

“I don’t know what will happen in the future,” Lovett said. “I can tell you we haven’t had any significant permits issued since March 2007 because the court found that the federal government was illegally issuing permits at that time.”

 When a federal court in West Virginia issued an order rescinding permits in question, the permits were sent back to the Corps. The Corps of Engineers contested the ruling in the Richmond appellate court. The case also includes an issue related to sediment discharge.

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