Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining wants the 3,100-acre permit to expand its Dal-Tex operation into Pigeonroost Hollow near Blair, Logan County.
Company officials say they have run out of coal to mine on existing permits, and may have to shut down the operation without the new permit. Already, 13 workers at Dal-Tex's Monclo preparation plan have been laid off.
Haden ruled on Wednesday that environmental groups' lawyers have made a good case so far that the Pigeonroost permit violates federal and state mining rules, and needs additional review by DEP and the Corps.
The judge stayed the permit until he can hold a trial on a larger case over an alleged "pattern and practice" of mountaintop removal permit violations. That trial is scheduled for early September.
In his 47-page preliminary-injunction order, Haden wrote: "Hobet presented evidence demonstrating significant harm to the company, workers and the local economy if the permit is further delayed."
White, the Dal-Tex general manager, testified that the company has lost $1 million a month since July 1998 because of permit delays. White also told Haden that the company may close the mine, rather than suffer continued losses, a move that would cost more than 300 workers their jobs.
"Hobet has made a significant investment in the [Pigeonroost Hollow] mine, considering the cost of the operation itself, the cost of purchasing homes around the proposed mine, and preparing the permit applications," Haden wrote. "Moreover, the dragline alone is a significant investment and, if idled, downtime would be costly.
"Finally, Hobet adduced evidence of current and proposed layoffs, caused by the delay in mining operations at Spruce Fork," he wrote.
However, Haden ruled that these harms "are purely temporary economic harms," as opposed to the "imminent and irreversible" harm to the environment if the mining were allowed to start before the trial and a final decision in the case.
"Destruction of the unique topography of Southern West Virginia, and of Pigeonroost Hollow in particular, cannot be regarded as anything but permanent and irreversible," Haden said.
On Thursday, lawyers for Arch Coal appealed Haden's ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It is not clear how long that appeal might take.
In a prepared statement, Arch Coal CEO Steven Leer said the company was "both shocked as well as disappointed" by Haden's ruling.
"This decision will result in substantial harm to Dal-Tex, its employees and vendors, as well as to the communities where our people work and live," Leer said.
"The court's characterization of these harms as ëpurely temporary economic harms' does not recognize the human impact of this decision.
"In reality, the decision means that a majority of the employees at our Dal-Tex mine have now had their jobs and their very livelihoods cast into serious doubt," Leer said.
"In the best case, the timing of the permit delays will require substantial and extended layoffs this year. In the worst case, this decision may necessitate the immediate shut down of the mine except for reclamation activity."