The Ohio Supreme Court has released a ruling affirming mineral owners’ right to strip mine in state wildlife parks, potentially setting a precedent for future mining cases throughout the state.
Environmental advocates say a Sept. 17 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court may jeopardize Athens County land for environmental destruction through surface, or strip, mining.
The court ruled 6-1 in favor of overturning an appellate court ruling, allowing the mineral owners of the more than 650-acre Brush Creek Wildlife Area in Jefferson County to mine at least $2 million of coal from the surface of the state-owned land.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources specifically owns the surface of the property and argued against permitting strip mining underground.
ODNR, which once had the green light from Ohio Gov. John Kasich to permit hydraulic fracturing in state parks, argued in their case that “removal of coal by surface mining disrupts the surface estate through ‘violence, destruction and disfiguration.’”
The agency cautioned that the ruling could open more state property to surface mining.
Ronald Snyder and Steven Neeley own the land’s mineral rights, and their 1944 land contract did not forbid extracting coal from the property through surface mining, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer wrote in the court’s opinion.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell was the lone dissent and wrote that the court previously ruled that strip mining is not always authorized under mineral rights contracts.
The Court of Appeals of Jefferson County, through which Snyder and Neeley’s case first ran, stated that “although the reservation of mineral rights implies the right to remove the minerals, it does not imply the right to remove them by strip mining methods.
“The rationale that runs consistently through those cases is that strip mining does not merely use the surface, it destroys the surface.”
But Snyder and Neeley contend that surface mining is the only feasible way of removing the coal.
“ODNR is disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, which ignored substantial precedent as to this issue,” said ODNR Spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle in an email statement. “Based on this decision ODNR intends to review all of its deeds to confirm what other surface disturbances, if any, are possible as a result of this outcome.”
Geoffrey Buckley, an Ohio University professor of geography, said that land rights make for complicated legal situations when the owner of the surface rights is different from the owner of the mineral rights.
Just like the dispute between ODNR and the mineral rights owners.
“In order to get to the minerals, the surface must be compromised; you can’t have eggs without cracking the shells,” Buckley said.
Surface mining is usually beneficial for coal companies, since coal deposits are close to the surface. That means companies can use bulldozers to clear coal, rather than the added infrastructure and workers needed in a conventional coal shaft.
A 2002 loophole in the Clean Water Act, Buckley said, allows coal companies to dump surface mine waste in or near streams without penalty, adding extra cost benefit to the practice.
Buckley is concerned for the impact that the ruling could have on the land of Southeast Ohio. State-owned land in Athens County includes Strouds Run State Park, Waterloo Wildlife Area and Fox Lake Wildlife Area.
“Surface mining has a devastating impact on biodiversity because it strips away vegetation, so in a forested area, you’ll never see those trees grow back in your lifetime,” Buckley said. “Our area is very biodiverse, so surface mining would have a pretty major impact on our wildlife.”