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ARSENAL COAL COMPANY ET AL. v. COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA (01/13/83)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: January 13, 1983.

ARSENAL COAL COMPANY ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCES ET AL., RESPONDENTS

Original jurisdiction in case of Arsenal Coal Company, Barren Coal Company, Beltrami Enterprises, Inc., Blaschak Coal Company, Botella Trucking, Inc., Brook Contracting Corp., Buckto Corporation, Burns Coal Company, Cass Contracting Company, Cassel Coal Company, Conyngham Contracting Company, Inc., Cracker Coal Corp., D & F Coal Company, Drew Development Corporation, Fedako Coal Company, Franklin Miller Coal Company, Gaelic Coal Company, Glenworth Coal Company, Great Eastern Coal Corp., Harry David Mining Company, J.R.K. Coal Company, J & W Coal Company, Kerris and Helfrick, Inc., Kocher Coal Company, Kol-Mor, Inc., Lally Enterprises, Last Try Coal Company, Lehigh Valley Anthracite, Inc., Lensco Corporation, Lucas Mining Company, Lucky Strike Coal Corporation, Manbeck Dredging Company, Martin Coal Company, McCaul Contracting Company, Meadow Brook Coal Company, Mercury Coal Company, Metzinger Coal Company, Mine Hill Coal Company, Olenick Brothers Coal Company, Pine Creek Coal Company, Premium Fine Coal, Inc., Reading Anthracite Company, Rosini Coal Company, Inc., Savitski Brothers Coal Company, Schuylkill Contracting Company, Skytop Contracting Company, Inc., Split Vein Coal Company, Sunray Coal Company, Superior Coal Company, Swatara Coal Company, Swift Coal Company, Underkofflers Coal Service, Inc., Vito j. Rodino, Inc., Winne Land Company, Zakrewsky Coal Company v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Resources, Peter S. Department of Environmental Resources, Peter S. Duncan, Secretary of the Department of Environmental Resources.

COUNSEL

James J. Curran, with him Edward E. Kopko, for petitioners.

John C. Dernbach, Assistant Counsel, with him Peter Shelley, Gary L. Martin, and Douglas R. Blazey, Assistant Counsels, for respondents.

President Judge Crumlish, Jr. and Judges Rogers, Blatt, Williams, Jr. and MacPhail. Opinion by Judge Blatt.

Author: Blatt

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 189]

Before us are the preliminary objections of the Department of Environmental Resources (DER) to a petition filed by the petitioners, who are coal mine operators and producers located throughout the anthracite region of the Commonwealth. The said petitioners sought preliminarily*fn1 and then permanently to enjoin the DER from implementing certain regulations promulgated by the Environmental Quality Board which govern environmental performance standards, bond limits and revegetation responsibility for the surface mining of anthracite coal. Specifically, the petitioners argue that these regulations differ impermissibly from the regulatory program governing the anthracite industry in existence in this Commonwealth on August 3, 1977.*fn2

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 190]

By way of preliminary objections the DER has raised, among other issues, the question of whether or not the petitioners have failed to exhaust an adequate administrative remedy under Section 1921-A of the Administrative Code of 1929, Act of April 9, 1929, P.L. 177, as amended, added by Section 20 of the Act of December 3, 1970, P.L. 834, 71 P.S. § 510-21.

Our Supreme Court in Shenango Valley Osteopathic Hospital v. Department of Health, Pa. , , 451 A.2d 434, 438 (1982), in commenting upon administrative remedies provided by the legislature, stated that:

The doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies as a restraint upon the exercise of a court's equitable powers not only reflects a recognition of the general assembly's directive of strict compliance with statutorily-prescribed remedies, it also acknowledges that an unjustified failure to follow the administrative scheme undercuts the foundation upon which the administrative process was founded. This premise was succinctly set forth in our decision in T. Mendelson Co., Inc. v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co., 332 Pa. 470, 474, 2 A.2d 820, 822 (1938).

The technical nature of the subject, and the peculiar ability of an administrative body to examine it, suffice as a matter of public policy to displace preliminary court action.

The premature interruption of the administrative process restricts the agency's opportunity to develop an adequate factual record, limits the agency in the exercise of its expertise and impedes the development of a cohesive body of law in that area. . . .

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 191]

The remedy afforded by the administrative process, however, must not be inadequate, Shenango Valley, nor must its pursuit cause the petitioners irreparable harm. Borough of Green Tree v. Board of Property Assessments, 459 Pa. 268, 328 A.2d 819 (1974) (citing Bliss Excavating Co. v. Luzerne County, 418 Pa. 446, 211 A.2d 532 (1965)).

In Shenango Valley the administrative remedy was deemed to be inadequate because it did not "provide any remedy or appeal process to resolve" the issues raised by the party seeking equitable relief. Id. at , 451 A.2d at 438. Here, however, Section 1921-A of the Administrative Code of 1929 in pertinent part provides:

§ 510-21 (Adm. Code § 1921-A). Environmental Hearing Board

(a) The Environmental Hearing Board shall have the power and its duties shall be to hold hearings and issue adjudications under the provisions of the act of June 4, 1945 (P.L. 1388), known as the "Administrative Agency Law," on any order, permit, license or decision of the Department of Environmental Resources.

(c) Anything in any law to the contrary, notwithstanding, any action of the Department of Environmental Resources may be taken initially without regard to the Administrative Agency Law, but no such action of the department adversely affecting any person shall be final as to such person until such person has had the opportunity to appeal such action to the Environmental Hearing Board; provided, however, that any such action shall be final as to any person who has not perfected his appeal in the manner hereinafter specified.

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 192]

(d) An appeal taken to the Environmental Hearing Board from a decision of the Department of Environmental Resources shall not act as a supersedeas, but, upon cause shown and where the circumstances require it, the department and/or the board shall have the power to grant a supersedeas.

This section, we believe, obviously sets forth an appeal process or remedy, for review of actions of the DER. Moreover, in St. Joe Minerals Corp. v. Goddard, 14 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 624, 628-29, 324 A.2d 800, 802 (1974), we stated as follows:

[T]he plaintiff is attacking not the constitutionality of a statute but rather the constitutionality of a regulation promulgated by the EQB [Environmental Quality Board]. Although the EHB [Environmental Hearing Board] would not have the authority to pass upon the constitutionality of a statute, it does have the authority to review the validity of a regulation promulgated by the EQB, and if, in its opinion, the regulation was improvidently promulgated or is arbitrary as to plaintiff's operation, it may reverse or modify the DER order. . . . (Emphasis added.)

It is clear in the case at hand that the petitioners challenge a large number of regulations promulgated by the Environmental Quality Board rather than a statute adopted by the legislature.*fn3 We believe, therefore, that the administrative remedy set forth in Section 1921-A of the Administrative Code of 1929 clearly provides the petitioners an adequate remedy or appeal

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 193]

    process under the "circumstances" presented before us. Borough of Green Tree, 459 Pa. at 276, 328 A.2d at 823. Furthermore, we believe it equally clear in the case at hand that, unlike the situation in Shenango Valley, important factual issues remain for consideration; many of which embrace highly technical determinations*fn4 in, among others, the area of hydrology, soil mechanics, pollution control engineering, and revegetation processes. As previously stated, part of the reason for the rule requiring the exhaustion of administrative remedies in proper circumstances is because quasi-judicial tribunals, whose technical expertise exceed that of the courts, are consequently in a much better position than the courts to make complex factual or administrative determinations. See, e.g., Shenango Valley; Borough of Green Tree; T. Mendelson Co., Inc. v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co., 332 Pa. 470, 2 A.2d 820 (1938).

Concerning the issue as to whether or not the petitioners will be irreparably harmed, Borough of Green Tree, during their pursuit of the aforementioned statutorily provided administrative remedy, we note that Section 1921-A(c) of the Administrative Code of 1929 provides petitioners the opportunity to seek a stay of the DER's enforcement of the regulations against them. In St. Joe Minerals Corp., we held that such a supersedeas procedure afforded a petitioner challenging a DER regulation ample protection against irreparable harm which might occur during the administrative procedure before the Environmental Hearing Board. Similarly, we believe that the petitioners in the instant matter are adequately protected.

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 194]

We will, therefore, sustain the DER's preliminary objection that the petitioners have failed to exhaust their administrative remedy in this matter. And, having done so we will not be required to address the other issues raised in the DER's preliminary objections.

Order

And Now, this 13th day of January, 1983, the preliminary objection of the Department of Environmental Resources that the petitioners failed to exhaust their administrative remedies is sustained and the petitioners' petition for review in the above-captioned matter is hereby dismissed.

Order

And Now, this 13th day of January, 1983, inasmuch as this Court has sustained the respondents' preliminary objection that the petitioners have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, and has dismissed the petitioners' petition for review, the petitioners' request for a preliminary injunction in the above-captioned matter is hereby denied without prejudice and the hearing set for February 8, 1983 is cancelled.

Disposition

Preliminary objections sustained. Petition dismissed.


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