Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Friday that he doesn't see the Patriot settlement really setting any sort of precedent or being the start of a trend.
"It's a unique situation," Raney said. "It's one company trying to restructure itself. This doesn't change anything. I don't think you can apply this universally across the industry or across the state."
One reason for that may be a bill state lawmakers approved last session that makes it harder to sue coal companies for water quality problems unless those violations can be directly tied to a violation of a pollution permit limit, said Joe Lovett, an Appalachian Mountain Advocates lawyer who negotiated the deal with Patriot.
Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental policy at the Vermont Law School, said the Patriot selenium cases were an example of citizen suits doing exactly what Congress intended when it included them in the Clean Water Act.
"When the law finally catches up with industries like the coal industry, and it starts to be reflected on their balance sheets, that's when you see changes in corporate thinking," Parenteau said.
Other coal industry experts emphasize that there are factors at work in the Patriot deal beyond the selenium issue.
For example, Kentucky mining engineer John Morgan noted that most industry studies and government forecasts have long projected the current decline in Central Appalachian coal production because of the mining out of quality reserves -- especially those that are best reached by large-scale surface mining.
"There are only a limited number of large-scale surface mine-able reserves left and it's not attractive economically," said Morgan, who has worked for industry, environmental groups and regulatory agencies. "There are still opportunities for limited-scale surface mining. There will still be surface mining, but it won't be large and it won't be with draglines."
Longtime state environmental group leaders remain hopeful that the Patriot deal is the start of a trend away from large-scale mountaintop removal operations.
"It's an important first step," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "It's an important recognition of everything we've been talking about for 20 years."
Rank said it is clear that Patriot's decision was based on economics, but that it was refreshing to hear Hatfield speak publicly "to acknowledge the impacts to the communities."
Pat McGinley, a longtime environmental law professor at West Virginia University, recalled that citizens he helped represent in early mountaintop removal cases in 1998 argued companies could mine coal without using such a destructive method.
"A more sustainable coal mining industry providing steady long-term employment will be the result," McGinley said.
Hatfield said he believes Patriot's settlement will allow the company to make up surface mining jobs losses that come later in the phase-out process with positions at new underground mines. And some environmental group leaders are talking about that possibility as well.
"We are aware of the impact this could have on Patriot's current surface miners," said Diane Bady of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "We hope that Patriot's expanded emphasis on underground mining will provide employment opportunities for surface miners."
But even long-time workers at a surface coal mine don't necessarily have the proper training and state-required certifications to work underground. Older surface mine workers could easily lose out to younger -- and non-union -- workers when new deep mine jobs open.
Patriot's two largest mountaintop removal mines are both among the few unionized surface mines in West Virginia, with two of the union's strongest local offices. New underground mines could be opened with totally non-union work forces, though, leaving those UMW members without new jobs.
UMW officials also remain very concerned about pensions and health-care benefits for thousands of Patriot retirees. Like Patriot's huge selenium treatment costs, Patriot's estimated $1.3 billion in pension and health-care liabilities were transferred to Patriot when it was formed by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. The UMW worries that Patriot plans to try to abandon those pension and health-care costs as part of its bankruptcy.
"Coal mining has always been an occupation of continuous change, whether it's technological change, changes in mining methods, changes in markets, or changes in regulations," said UMW President Cecil Roberts. "Companies have always made decisions based on those changes and workers are left to live with the consequences. That is what has happened here."
Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said the Patriot announcement is more evidence that the state needs to focus on planning an economic transition as the coal industry declines.
"The decision highlights the fragility of our state's economy and the urgent need to take steps to ensure that we will always benefit from our rich natural resources," Boettner said Friday.
"One way to do this is by creating a permanent trust from severance taxes or a Future Fund," he said. "This can be done with existing revenue sources and can provide more stability and help us transition our economy. Mineral trust funds have a proven track record in several other energy states and there is no reason it can't work here."
Lovett, the citizen group lawyer, agreed that it's time for West Virginia political leaders to face up to coal's decline and plan for it.
"Instead of trying to create fear among coal miners and others who depend on the coal economy, our political leaders should be trying to find solutions for the inevitable decline of coal jobs," Lovett said. "So far, I haven't heard any. That's a failure of leadership and it will cause great misery."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.