Jump to Navigation
Jump to Content

Bragg v. West Virginia Coal Ass'n

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20582
Nos. Nos. 99-2443 et al., 248 F.3d 275/52 ERC 1225/(4th Cir., 04/24/2001)

The court holds that the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars citizens from bringing suit against West Virginia state officials in federal court to enjoin the state from granting mountaintop mining permits. Citizens brought suit against the state officials alleging that in granting mountaintop coal mining permits, the officials engaged in an ongoing pattern and practice of violating nondiscretionary duties under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). In accordance with SMCRA, West Virginia enforces the mountaintop coal mining program for the state under a U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) approved program. SMCRA provides for either state regulation of mountaintop coal mining or federal regulation, but not both. Thus, even though a state ultimately remains subject to SMCRA, the Act grants exclusive jurisdiction to a primacy state, thereby conditionally divesting the federal government of direct regulatory authority. Therefore, after DOI approves a state's program, the court can look only to state law on matters involving the enforcement of the minimum national standards.

The court first holds that contrary to the citizens' argument, the national minimum standards set out in SMCRA do not retain operative force, and the citizens cannot bring suit in federal court to enforce them. To construe SMCRA in such a manner would circumvent the carefully designed balance that Congress established between the federal government and the states because the effect of a citizen suit to enjoin officials in a primacy state to comport with federal provisions establishing the core standards for mountaintop coal mining would end exclusive state regulation and undermine federalism established by the Act. By giving states exclusive regulatory control through enforcement of their own approved laws, Congress intended that federal law establishing minimum national standards would drop out as operative law and that state laws would become the sole operative law. The court next holds that because SMCRA establishes minimum standards that have been adopted by West Virginia and approved by DOI, any violation of this standard involves state law, not federal law, and any injunction against state officials to enforce this provision would comport with the state's own law, and, therefore, cannot be enforced in federal court. The court further holds that West Virginia did not waive its sovereign immunity in federal court when it elected to submit its program to DOI for approval.

[Prior decisions in this litigation are published at 29 ELR 21316, 30 ELR 20115, 20165, and 20386.]

Counsel for Plaintiffs
James M. Hecker
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice
1717 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Ste. 800, Washington DC 20036
(202) 797-8600

Counsel for Defendants
Benjamin L. Bailey
Bailey & Glasser
227 Capitol St., Charleston WV 25301
(304) 345-6555

Niemeyer, J. Before Luttig and Williams, JJ.