A federal judge on Thursday approved a partial settlement of a lawsuit over mountaintop removal, paving the way for environmental agencies to more tightly regulate mining.
Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II rejected coal industry arguments that strict regulation would be a severe and unfair hardship on mine operators.
"Predictable delays to mining permits are insufficient to derail an otherwise fair, reasonable and lawful settlement agreement executed by a federal agency," Haden wrote.
Haden ruled Thursday only on a proposal by regulators and environmental groups to settle claims that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illegally allowed mine operators to bury streams with valley fills.
At the same time, negotiations continued on a long list of other allegations that the state Division of Environmental Protection ignored federal laws in permitting mountaintop removal mines.
Those claims are scheduled to go to trial before Haden on July 13.
"There are significant negotiations going on," said one source close to the talks. "This is a resolvable problem."
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his organization agreed Thursday to continue talks based on a broad set of possible terms under which environmentalists might consider dropping their suit.
According to Raney, those terms include a further tightening of the approximate original contour definition, limiting possible post-mining land uses for mountaintop removal, and mitigating area lost to mountaintop removal with coal company donations of land for public uses.
"All of these things are still up for discussion and we need to get on with those discussions and see if some resolution can be reached," Raney said.
Representatives of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy have declined to comment on a June 12 meeting at which their group's board of directors discussed a potential settlement.
Frank Young, the conservancy president, said that all parties to the suit agreed not to discuss the negotiations.
"I can't even confirm that we met right now," Young said. "This is sensitive stuff."