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Patriot move a sign of mountaintop removal's decline

Courtesy photo
The Hobet mountaintop removal complex in Boone-Lincoln counties is one of West Virginia's strip-mining sites. Last year, one major West Virginia coal producer announced it would phase out the practice of mountaintop removal mining.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite several high-profile courtroom losses for the Obama administration, mountaintop removal appears to be on the decline, with one major West Virginia coal producer announcing last year it would phase out the practice.

Last November, Patriot Coal agreed to phase out mountaintop removal and other forms of strip-mining, saying that the move is in the best interests of their company, its employees and the communities where it operates.

In a deal with citizen groups and environmentalists, Patriot said it would never seek new permits for large-scale surface mining operations. St. Louis-based Patriot can continue some existing and smaller mining projects, but must also implement a cap on surface production and eventually stop all strip-mining when existing coal leases expire.

Ben Hatfield, president and CEO of Patriot, said the plan should help his company emerge from bankruptcy, focus on underground mining, and curb mountaintop removal's effects on coalfield communities.

"Patriot Coal recognizes that our mining operations impact the communities in which we operate in significant ways," Hatfield said. "We believe the proposed settlement will result in a reduction of our environmental footprint."

Patriot, the second-largest producer of surface-mined coal in West Virginia, becomes the first U.S. coal operator to announce plans to abandon mountaintop removal, a controversial practice linked to serious environmental damage and coalfield public health problems.

"Patriot's decision that mountaintop removal and other large surface mines are not in its best interests is the inevitable conclusion for any mining company that actually has to pay the costs of the environmental harm it creates," said Joe Lovett, an Appalachian Mountain Advocates lawyer who negotiated the deal with Patriot on behalf of the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast apart mountains to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is shoved into valleys, burying streams.

During the past 15 years, mountaintop removal has grown more and more controversial, as scientists have documented how the practice damages the environment and found that residents who live near large-scale surface mines face greater risk of serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects.

Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University researcher who has published more than 20 scientific papers linking mountaintop removal to coalfield health problems, said the Patriot settlement sounds like a positive step to help address those issues.

"The evidence is clear that large-scale surface mining is harmful to the environment and public health," Hendryx said. "I think this is a terrific development. I would like us to try to keep in mind that as this type of mining declines, it's going to be really important to think about what happens next, to think about different types of employment for the people who live here."

Since taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration has launched several initiatives to try to curb mountaintop removal, or at least more closely scrutinize new mining permits.

The moves fell well short of the mountaintop removal ban sought by citizen groups. But mining industry officials and coalfield political leaders have opposed the Obama efforts, labeling them part of a "war on coal," and succeeding in overturning U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actions in court.

The EPA has appealed those courtroom losses.

Oral argument is set for mid-March before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in a case over EPA's veto of the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history. No argument has been scheduled yet in a case over EPA's new water quality guidance for strip-mining in Appalachia.

In another case, environmental groups have an oral argument in mid-March before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in which they challenge U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers' decision not to throw out an Alpha Natural Resources mountaintop removal permit in Logan County.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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