"I don't have a warm and fuzzy feeling about that," said Ben Greene, president of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association. "Two years is out of the question. You're going to see a lot of people out of work."
Greene said he is particularly worried that the settlement's provisions won't be enforced in other coal states, especially Kentucky. That would put West Virginia operators at a disadvantage, Greene said.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the coal industry wasn't consulted about the settlement. Of particular concern, Raney said, was why only the Arch Coal permit, and not other pending permits, was exempted from the settlement requirements.
"We'd like to have a little bit of input somewhere along the line, since it affects use," Raney said. "I wasn't at the table. No one cared about my opinion until you asked me."
Coal industry groups that intervened in the lawsuit filed a motion late last week asking Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden to hold a conference or hearing to discuss the settlement's potential impacts. Haden scheduled a closed-door conference for Thursday. Haden must approve a motion to dismiss parts of the lawsuit before the settlement is finalized.
Environmental activists had their own problems with the settlement.
Many felt it didn't go far enough, and wanted to reject the deal and litigate the case, hoping to win a ruling that would result in a ban on valley fills altogether. Others felt such a ruling, which would cripple the mining industry, would never occur or, at least, wouldn't stand up under appeal.
"Short of the world rising up and saying that mountaintop removal is wrong and shouldn't happen, which is what a lot of us want, this is our best shot," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the Highlands Conservancy.
Environmentalists did manage to stall EPA for several weeks and strengthen certain portions of the settlement. They also refused to sign off on the granting of the Arch Coal permit, maintaining their right to challenge it in court separately.
Also, environmentalists refused to drop separate allegations in their lawsuit against the state Division of Environmental Protection.
Those allegations charge that DEP ignores various permit requirements, such as stream buffer zones and a mandate that land flattened by mountaintop removal be reclaimed for use by factories, shopping malls or public parks. Those portions of the lawsuit will be litigated later this year.
Rank said the settlement is far from the end of the mountaintop removal controversy.
When the Legislature comes to town next week, mountaintop removal will be among the top issues. Some citizen groups plan to continue to press for a ban on mountaintop removal. Others want further limits on blasting, or the repeal of a bill lessening the requirements for mitigating for streams buried by valley fills.
In the end, Rank said, citizens will have to keep a close watch on state and federal regulators if the settlement is to do any good.
"A whole lot depends on how willing EPA is to put forth an extraordinary effort over the next few years," Rank said. "The only thing that will make this work is that kind of commitment.
"This settlement is a good step forward," she said. "How good a step it is depends on the resources and the resolve that are available at the agencies involved.
"We need a lot of vigilance on the part of the people who are already stretched thin. At best, this will control, but if we want to stop this, we have to keep bringing to the public images of the loss of communities and the loss of Appalachia."