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Molinary v. Powell Mountain Coal Co.

ELR Citation: 28 ELR 20035
Nos. 96-1728, -1797, 125 F.3d 231/(4th Cir., 09/11/1997) Aff'd in part, vacated in part, and remanded

The court holds that the citizen suit provision of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), §520(f), provides a federal cause of action for the recovery of damages resulting from violation of state regulations that are a part of the state's surface coal mining and reclamation regulatory program approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). The heirs to a 99 percent interest in the surface estate of land in Virginia brought a class action under §520(f) against a company that mined the land pursuant to an allegedly improperly issued permit. DOI, as amicus curiae, contended that the Virginia regulations in question were issued pursuant to SMCRA such that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction over the heirs' complaint. The court first notes that because Congress has not directly spoken to the precise question at issue, the court must sustain DOI's interpretation so long as it is based on a permissible construction of the statute. The court holds that DOI's interpretation is a permissible construction of the statute because the SMCRA language at issue is broad enough to support DOI's interpretation. It may reasonably be said that once DOI approves a state surface coal mining and reclamation program, the rules, regulations, orders, and permits issued under that program are issued pursuant to SMCRA. The court rejects the company's argument that DOI's interpretation conflicts with the federal grant of exclusive jurisdiction over the regulation of surface coal mining and reclamation operations in §520(f) to states with federally approved surface coal mining and reclamation programs. Exclusive regulatory jurisdiction simply does not encompass exclusive adjudicatory jurisdiction. The court holds that because Congress has not specifically assigned jurisdiction over suits brought under §520(f) elsewhere, the district court possessed subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1331.

The court next holds that the heirs were not entitled to summary judgment on the issue of liability. The practices of the Virginia Division of Mined Land Reclamation (DMLR) served as an efficient intervening cause, breaking the causal chain between the company's violation of the regulations at issue and the damage alleged by the heirs. The heirs suffered damage because the permitting officer routinely approved permits based on incomplete permit applications, not because the incompleteness of the company's permit application induced the permitting officer to approve it. The court further holds that because there is no evidence of proximate cause in the record, the district court erred in denying the company's motion for summary judgment. The fact that the DMLR revoked the permit after it received complaints about the incomplete nature of the company's permit application is not evidence of proximate cause. The subsequent revocation does not speak to whether the incompleteness of the permit application induced the permitting officer to issue the company the permit in the first place.

[A prior decision in this litigation is published at 24 ELR 20359.]

Counsel for Plaintiff
Daniel R. Bieger
Copeland, Molinary & Bieger
212 W. Valley St., Abingdon VA 24210
(540) 628-9525

Counsel for Defendant
Stephen M. Hodges
Penn, Stuart & Eskridge
Virginia House
208 E. Main St., Abingdon VA 24212
(540) 628-5151

Before Wilkins and Niemeyer, JJ.