HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- On Thursday, Patriot Coal CEO Ben Hatfield stood up in federal court and announced what once might have seemed unthinkable: A major Appalachian coal producer is phasing out its use of mountaintop removal and all other forms of strip mining.
Hatfield told U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers that mountaintop removal mining impacts coalfield communities "in significant ways," and that Patriot's move "will result in a reduction of our environmental footprint."
But a huge part of the real motivation was financial. Patriot hopes that by refocusing on underground mining and higher-profit steel-making coal it can emerge from bankruptcy, protecting its 4,000 employees and its shareholders' investments.
And in some ways, industry experts say, Patriot's decision is the inevitable result of a narrowing Appalachian coal market, the mining out of quality reserves, and a growing focus on curbing the environmental and public health impacts of large-scale surface mining in the region.
"It's a matter of industry's natural need to reduce risks," Hatfield said in an interview with the Sunday Gazette-Mail. "I think it recognizes the reality in our industry that large-scale surface mines have a lot of risks associated with them both in terms of market and regulatory risks."
In its deal with the citizen groups, Patriot promised never to seek new permits for large-scale surface mines that need Clean Water Act permits to bury streams. The company will retire two "dragline" mining machines, and gradually reduce surface production from 7.7 million tons last year to a cap of 3 million in 2018 and -- eventually, when current leases run out -- to zero.
The Patriot deal comes as Appalachian coal producers are facing tough competition from low-priced natural gas, with many utilities shifting from coal and prompting hundreds of layoffs across West Virginia and Kentucky. Many in the industry are pointing to coal exports, especially of higher-priced steel-making coal, as a huge part of the industry's future.
"This settlement is consistent with Patriot Coal's business plan to focus on expanding higher margin metallurgical coal production and limiting thermal coal investments to selective opportunities where geologic and regulatory risks are minimized," Hatfield said in a prepared statement he read to Chambers.
Hatfield's prepared statement did not outline specific concerns about any negative impacts of surface mining.
In an interview, Hatfield said, "It's a subject of much debate in the coalfields, but the coal industry does impact the communities where it operates."
Hatfield said that he and his company believe that, "overall, the impacts are favorable," but that as a West Virginia native he can "relate to some of the concerns," mentioning heavy truck traffic as one example.
"I think to the extent that the Southern West Virginia community is concerned about the impacts of surface mining, this [settlement] should be a positive move," Hatfield said.
The surprise settlement grew out of several years of litigation between the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups over important, but somewhat obscure, impacts of mountaintop removal: violations of the state's water quality limits for toxic selenium at Patriot operations in Southern West Virginia.
Selenium, a naturally occurring element found in many rocks and soils, is an antioxidant needed in very small amounts for good health. In slightly larger amounts, selenium can be toxic. Selenium impacts the reproductive cycle of many aquatic species, can impair the development and survival of fish, and can damage gills and other organs of aquatic organisms.
In 2003, a broad federal government study of mountaintop removal mining found repeated violations of water quality standards for selenium. The following year, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report warned of more selenium problems downstream from major mining operations.
Another study, published last year in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pointed specifically to serious selenium violations downstream from Patriot's Hobet complex along the Boone-Lincoln County border.
Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biologist, co-authored that 2011 paper, and said last week that the Patriot settlement sounds like a good start to dealing with mountaintop removal's impacts.
"I am not surprised to learn that mountaintop mining in this fashion no longer makes financial sense from the prospective of a large coal company," Bernhardt said. "I hope to hear soon that not only is Patriot coal tailing off their surface mine activity, but that the company is also finding ways to reduce the significant selenium pollution of the Mud River from their current mines."
Margaret Palmer, a University of Maryland biologist who has also studied mountaintop removal's environmental impacts, noted that there is no strong evidence to suggest water quality impacts from valley fills will decline very quickly, meaning pollution from past mining could continue for some time.
"Regardless, this is certainly a move in the right direction," Palmer said. "The fewer valley fills we add to the region, the less additional impact on streams."
For Patriot, agreeing to the settlement meant getting more time to fix existing selenium water quality violations at its current mining sites in Southern West Virginia, a move that puts off $27 million in compliance costs until 2014. The move puts Patriot in a better position to deal with an estimated $400 million in long-term selenium cleanup costs.
"It's clear that selenium has become a major issue in the operation of these type of coal-mining operations," Chambers, who has presided over numerous selenium cases in the last few years, said after last week's hearing.
But it's not clear how many other major mountaintop removal producers can be pressured into similar settlements through citizen lawsuits over selenium violations.
Patriot is West Virginia's second-largest producer of surface-mined coal, behind only Alpha Natural Resources. Ted Pile, an Alpha spokesman, said his company has no plans to alter its approach to mining based on the Patriot deal.
"The decision and agreement is theirs, and it does not affect our mining plans," Pile said.