A federal judge agreed Tuesday to an earlier trial date in a landmark case over mountaintop removal coal mining.
Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden moved the trial to July 13. It had been scheduled to start Sept. 9.
Haden ruled at the request of Arch Coal Inc., and in the face of mounting protests from the United Mine Workers and the coal industry.
The judge also received an unusual request for the expedited trial from Gov. Cecil Underwood, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, according to court records unsealed Tuesday.
In a 10-page order, Haden also allowed the UMW to intervene in the case.
On March 3, Haden issued a preliminary injunction that halted permits for Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining to expand its Dal-Tex mountaintop removal mine near Spruce Fork, Logan County. The company asked for an expedited trial, arguing it was losing $1 million a month without the new permits.
"In an effort to diminish the harm to Hobet, and recognizing the public's interest in a timely final resolution of the case, the court will expedite the trial of the entire case," Haden wrote in Tuesday's ruling.
Lawyers for Hobet wanted Haden to hold a trial on the Dal-Tex permit separate from a larger case over an alleged "pattern and practice" by regulators of issuing permits that violate environmental laws. The judge declined that request.
"Many of the same witnesses will testify regarding the alleged instances of the pattern and practice, including those involving the Spruce Fork permit," Haden wrote. "It would be unnecessarily repetitive and ultimately would delay the final resolution of the case to have a separate trial on the Spruce Fork permit."
Terry O'Connor, a spokesman for St. Louis-based Arch Coal, offered a mixed reaction to the ruling.
"We are pleased the judge has found time on his calendar to be able to accommodate an earlier trial date," O'Connor said. "But this decision does not change Arch's plans to continue with the closure of the Dal-Tex mine and the decommissioning of equipment there, as previously announced."
After Haden's March 3 ruling, Arch CEO Steven Leer said the company would close the Dal-Tex mine, and lay off most of its 400 workers, by August.