By Ari Phillips
19 September 2014
(ThinkProgress) -- This week, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 6-1 to potentially allow part of a state wildlife area to be strip-mined for coal. The ruling, which settles a dispute involving an esoteric land contract from 1944, could open up $2 million of coal to be dug out of a 651-acre section of the Brush Creek Wildlife Area owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Appellants Ronald Snyder and Steven Neeley appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court after an appeals court and common pleas court ruled in favor of the state’s claim that the land could not be strip mined unless it was explicitly permitted in the contract. They argued that the only way to get at the coal was to surface mine.
When the 1944 contract was transferred from the landowners to the ODNR the seller “reserve[d] all mineral rights, including rights of ingress and egress and reasonable surface right privilege.” The court found this to be the “ultimate issue” on Wednesday, with Justice Paul E. Pfeifer writing that “some areas of the property at issue were strip-mined before ODNR acquired it:
Thus, there is reason to believe that the signatories to the original contract understood that ‘reasonable surface right privileges’ included the right to strip mine, and there is no reason to believe that the signatories intended to exclude strip-mining.
Bethany McCorkle, spokesperson for the ODNR, disagrees with Pfeifer’s interpretation.
“ODNR is disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, which ignored substantial precedent as to this issue,” she told ThinkProgress. “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.”
In its summary judgment, the common pleas court had found 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 because “strip mining does not merely use the surface, it destroys the surface.” [more]