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Arch Mineral Corp. v. Babbitt

ELR Citation: 27 ELR 20696
Nos. No. 95-2793, 104 F.3d 660/(4th Cir., 01/16/1997)

The court holds that the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) was time barred from linking a mining company to a violator of OSM's permit requirements. The court first holds that the district court properly exercised subject matter jurisdiction over the mining company's statute-of-limitations defense. The company is not attacking the validity of the OSM's ownership-and-control regulations, which can only be challenged in the D.C. Circuit, but rather their application. The court next holds that the case was ripe for judicial review by the district court. The court rejects the OSM's assertion that because the agency's presumption linking the two companies through the regulations had not yet proceeded through all administrative channels, its action was not final. Placing the mining company on the OSM's applicant/violator system (AVS) had become a foregone conclusion at the time the company commenced the case, and thus the court takes the functional approach in deciding that the case is ripe for judicial review. Also, the district court properly considered the cost to the parties of delaying judicial review. The district court noted possible effects of an AVS listing on the company's present and future mining and reclamation projects through canceled or scaled back projects, increased costs of operation, loss of business reputation, disruptions in coal delivery, and job losses for workers.

Turning to the statute-of-limitations issues, the court holds also that the civil penalties sought by the OSM were time barred. The court rejects the Secretary's argument that the statute of limitations does not apply because the OSM is not assessing a penalty or bringing an action against the company, but rather is making a determination of ownership or control. The OSM's own regulations suggest that a link through the AVS constitutes a civil fine or penalty. And an AVS listing is, in addition to being an aid for reviewing present or potential permittees, a penalty in itself. Once listed, the mining company would not only be permit-blocked, but also automatically subject to the civil penalties initially imposed on the violator.

[Briefs and pleadings in this litigation are digested at ELR BRIEFS & PLEADS. 66456 and 66462.]

Counsel for Plaintiff
Michael B. Victorson
Robinson & McElwee
600 United Ct., P.O. Box 1791, Charleston WV 25326
(304) 344-5800

Counsel for Defendants
John T. Stahr
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Before ERVIN and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges, and SPENCER, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.