A federal judge has blocked a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for a Fola Coal Co. mountaintop removal mine along the Clay-Nicholas County line.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers then suspended parts of his own preliminary injunction to allow Fola Coal to continue producing coal until a full trial can be held.

Chambers wrote "I am certain that most citizens in West Virginia recognize both the contribution of coal to our economy and the value of this state's tremendous natural resources."

"With proper legislative or executive guidance, it may be possible to reach common ground in balancing these important values," he said.

A three-judge panel is considering an appeal of a March 2007 decision by Chambers that the Corps of Engineers did not properly consider the environmental impacts before issuing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines to bury streams.

In the mountaintop removal project in Clay-Nicholas, more than five miles of streams would be buried beneath 10 valley fills.

Chambers found that environmental group lawyers "raised substantial questions" about whether the corps' approval of the Fola permit was "arbitrary and capricious" and whether the agency followed its own public notice requirements.

Fola employs about 350 surface miners and another 45 underground miners, all of whom depend on the approving of the permits.

Fola is the largest employer in Clay County, and accounts for 65 percent of the county's tax base, citing testimony from County Commissioner Jerry Linkinoggor.

"While environmental damage from the burial of streams is real and imminent, the relationship between Fola Coal and Clay County is unique," Chambers wrote. "Fola is the only mining operation in the county, and as such is the foundation of the economy."

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