State regulators, environmentalists and coal operators have made a "breakthrough" in negotiations to settle part of a lawsuit over mountaintop removal mining, lawyers told a federal judge on Thursday.
Lawyers for the state Division of Environmental Protection, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and coalfield residents told Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II they need more time to iron out the details.
"Simply put, the time remaining before trial is inadequate to complete complex, multi-party negotiations or complete discovery on the state law issues," lawyers for DEP and the citizen groups said in a two-page motion.
The breakthrough, reached Wednesday, concerns only efforts to design a new definition of the federal "approximate original contour," or AOC, reclamation standard for surface mines, court filings indicate.
Over the last 1 1/2 years, various investigations have found that lax enforcement of the AOC rules has allowed coal operators to flatten mine sites under the guise of restoring them to their approximate original topography.
A tighter definition of AOC would force coal operators to put less rock and earth into stream-bed valley fills and propose more post-mining development for mountaintop removal sites.
In a legal motion, DEP lawyer Brian Glasser and lead plaintiffs lawyer Joe Lovett said negotiations had "reached a breakthrough yesterday on very complex technical issues related to AOC."
"It will, however, require additional time to reduce the general understanding to specific technical regulatory language," they said.
"The parties must also seek approval from regulatory authorities who are not parties to the case before the agreement could be properly finalized and implemented," Glasser and Lovett told Haden.
Glasser and Lovett filed the motion to further encourage Haden to delay the start of trial in the case, now scheduled for July 13.
The lawyers did not indicate that they had reached agreement on any of the other regulatory lapses alleged in a July 1998 lawsuit challenging DEP's mountaintop removal permitting.