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Keystone Bituminous Coal Ass'n v. DeBenedictis

Citation: 17 ELR 20440
No. No. 85-1092, 480 U.S. 470/25 ERC 1649/(U.S., 03/09/1987) Aff'd

The Court holds that the subsidence provisions of the Pennsylvania Bituminous Mine Subsidence Act (Act) on their face do not violate the Taking or Contract Clauses of the Constitution. The Court first holds that § 4 of the Act, which prohibits coal mining that causes subsidence damage to buildings, dwellings, and cemeteries, and regulations issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER) that require 50 percent of the coal beneath § 4-protected areas to be left unmined to provide surface support, do not violate the Fifth Amendment's prohibition against takings of private property without just compensation. The Court holds that the Act serves a public purpose by providing for the conservation of surface lands and public water supplies threatened by subsidence and by enhancing the value of those lands for taxation. The Court distinguishes Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393 (1922), a factually similar case in which a statutory requirement to protect surface areas was held to be a taking of private property without compensation. The focus must be upon the nature of the governmental action at issue; the public interest in preventing subsidence is similar to the interest in preventing nuisances, and prohibiting a particular land use is not, in itself, a taking. There is no showing that the Act's requirement to leave unmined sufficient coal to support the surface estate renders the mining of coal under § 4-protected areas commercially impracticable; the requirement, the court holds, is therefore not a regulatory taking which denies the property owner an economically viable use of his land. The "investment-backed expectations" have not been materially affected, since the coal under the protected areas may still be mined at a profit.

The Court holds that § 6 of the Act, which authorizes DER to revoke a coal mining permit if the mining causes subsidence to a § 4-protected area and if the mining operator does not repair the damage within six months, does not violate the Contract Clause, despite the impairment of preexisting contracts in which surface owners waived their rights to subjacent support. Pennsylvania recognizes three distinct interests in land that may be held in fee simple: the surface estate, the mineral estate, and the "support estate," the last of which, when held by the owner of the mineral estate, consists of the right to remove the strata of coal that undergirds the surface. Nearly all the support estates in western Pennsylvania are owned by coal companies under contracts executed near the turn of the century in which the owners of the surface estate waived their right to damage claims from subsidence. The Court observes that the support estate only has value insofar as it protects the value of the estate with which it is associated. The Court holds that the support estate in the instant case is not taken by the regulations, even though it is burdened, since the coal operators may continue to profitably mine nearly all the coal in the mineral estate. The Court holds that the preexisting contracts are substantially impaired by the Act's § 6 requirement that mining operators pay for damage due to subsidence, but nevertheless holds that the public purposes served by the Act outweigh the impairment.

The dissent would hold that Pennsylvania Coal Co. is indistinguishable, and that the requirement to leave coal unmined is a taking of property without just compensation in violation of the Constitution.

[The appellate court's opinion appears at 15 ELR 20862.]

Counsel for Petitioner
Rex Lee
Sidley & Austin
1722 I St. NW, Washington DC 20006
(202) 429-4000

Counsel for Respondent
Andrew S. Gordon
Office of the Attorney General
Strawberry Sq., 16th Fl., Harrisburg PA 17120
(717) 787-3391