By Vivian Stockman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Bush administration has been severely stung in its attempts to aid the coal industry.

Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that valley fills at mountaintop removal operations violate the Clean Water Act.

The Bush administration late Friday finalized a rule change that attempted to legalize valley fills. U.S. District Court Judge Charles H. Haden II said Tuesday that the rule change itself is illegal, as is the coal company practice of fill hundreds of miles of streams with former mountaintops. Coal companies blast off the tops of mountains in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to mine thin seams of coal.

Today, bipartisan members of Congress pledged to introduce legislation that blocks the rule change and cements the original Clean Water Act rule in question.

"Where do we line up to kiss Judge Haden?" asked Janet Fout, co-director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC). The Huntington, W.Va.-based environmental group says mountaintop removal has devastated coalfield communities and disrupted entire ecosystems. The group also says last week's deadly floods, which killed six people in southern West Virginia, were most likely worsened by mountaintop removal strip mining, because deforested and scalped mountains and filled-in valleys retain less rainfall runoff than intact forest ecosystems.

"Bush's coal industry buddies were caught breaking the law, so they lobbied the administration to rewrite the law in their favor," Fout said. "But Judge Haden is a sage student of the law of the land. He says valley fills are illegal under the Clean Water Act. In a victory for our American system of government, both Judge Haden and members of Congress have reminded Bush and Co. that only Congress can rewrite laws. The judge's ruling will help coalfield residents reclaim both their future and democracy itself from the grip of King Coal."

In an earlier ruling on a lawsuit filed by coalfield residents and environmental groups, Haden had already declared large valley fills to be illegal. The coal industry reacted with predications of its demise and appealed the ruling. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, saying the case against a state agency should have not been filed in federal court. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth then filed a new valley fill case against a federal agency only, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"Judge Haden's bravery, given the doomsday reactions to his first decision, gives us some hope that the judicial system may actually serve as a balance to the political and economic influence of the mining industry," said Bill McCabe, a field organizer with the Citizens Coal Council. "It is refreshing to see a legal decision that clearly tells outlaw coal companies that the law does not allow them to destroy our pristine streams and mountains."

"Judge Haden's decision is a victory for West Virginia's rivers and streams," said Jeremy P. Muller, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. "He has upheld the intent and purpose of the Clean Water Act, and the fact that our rivers are not the coal industry's, or any other industry's, waste bin -- no matter how much they protest to the contrary."

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