Federal regulators are preparing to back off their harsh criticism of mountaintop removal coal mining.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials are negotiating a deal that would give Arch Coal Inc. at least part of a controversial, 3,100-acre mountaintop removal permit in Logan County.
EPA officials hope to reach agreement soon on the plan, so that Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining can avoid laying off nearly 400 workers at the end of December.
"We're trying to move as expeditiously as we can," said Dan Sweeney, an environmental engineer with EPA Region III in Philadelphia. "We're just trying to get something resolved that would be equitable and perhaps get them started."
EPA's handling of the Hobet permit could set a precedent for dealing with several other pending mountaintop removal applications the agency has objected to, and for dozens of other future mountaintop removal permits.
West Virginia's congressional delegation and two U.S. senators have recently pressured EPA and other agencies to move forward with the Hobet permit and other mountaintop removal applications.
An environmental activist said coal companies are using the threat of job losses to blackmail government agencies into issuing permits.
EPA officials insisted they haven't made up their mind yet.
"This is still in the negotiation and discussion stage," Sweeney said. "It's just not nailed down."
Hobet Mining wants the 5-square-mile permit - the largest in state history - to expand its Dal-Tex mountaintop removal complex near Blair.
The new permit would move mining east, across W.Va. 17, from the current Dal-Tex operation.
The mine expansion would dig about 80 million tons of coal, perhaps $2 billion tons worth of coal, over 15 years. The mine would also bury six miles of Pigeonroost Branch and nearby tributaries with 150 million cubic yards of rock and earth mine waste valley fills.
In late October, Arch Coal announced that, if it didn't receive the permit by Dec. 31, it would start to lay off up to 400 miners who work at Dal-Tex.
Four days later, state Division of Environmental Protection Director Michael Miano issued a state mining permit for the operation. Miano said he and Gov. Cecil Underwood wanted to do whatever they could to avoid the layoffs.
Mining of the expanded operation is still being held up by an EPA objection to the state issuing a federal Clean Water Act permit for the mine.
In June, EPA Region III Administrator Michael McCabe said the permit could not be issued because the mine's proposed valley fills would violate federal and state rules that prohibit degradation of streams and water quality.
In response to a Gazette Freedom of Information Act request, Sweeney stated in April that, "since valley fills cover stream beds and smother any aquatic life present in stream beds, such filling would be an apparent violation of the anti-degradation policy."