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M&J Coal Co. v. United States

ELR Citation: 24 ELR 21064
Nos. No. 92-266L, 30 Fed. Cl. 360/(Fed. Cl., 01/28/1994)

The court holds that a Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) enforcement action by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) against mining companies was not a regulatory taking of the companies' property. The action required the companies to increase their draw angle at a particular mine under protected structures and to protect single-family dwellings. Applying a two-tiered approach to analyzing the takings claim, the court first holds that the companies failed to establish any legally cognizable right to mine coal in accordance with a 15-degree plan. No state or federal law, regulation, permit, or practice gave them this right. The common mining practice in West Virginia of using a 15-degree angle of draw to protect structures does not provide such a right. The court also holds that the companies did not establish an expectancy right to mine under a 15-degree plan. The companies never had a permit that granted them a right to mine under a 15-degree plan, and even if they did, such a permit would have been subject to modification by OSM. Further, the right to mine under a 15-degree plan was not part of the companies' title when they purchased their rights to the mine. Next, the court holds that OSM's enforcement action requiring the companies to protect single family dwellings was not a taking of a cognizable property right. The companies failed to establish that they owned a right to mine under certain land without being liable for damages caused to the surface. Although the right to mine coal without being liable for damages to surface owners was included in their title, that right was limited at all times by OSM's power to ensure the health and safety of the public. At the time the companies purchased their rights to the mine, SMCRA forbade any coal operator from engaging in mining practices that endanger health and safety. Finally, the court holds that the companies' suit differed from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393 (1922), because the companies purchased their mining rights several years after SMCRA was enacted, and OSM responded to protect public health and safety in the future, not to benefit surface owners whose houses had already subsided.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Edgar F. Heiskell III
Spilman, Thomas & Battle
990 Elmer Price Dr., Ste. 205, Morgantown WV 26504
(304) 599-8175

Counsel for Defendant
Gregory D. Page
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000