A year ago Friday, a group of environmentalists and coalfield residents went to court to try to curb mountaintop removal coal mining.
They alleged state and federal regulators illegally allow coal operators to flatten mountains and bury streams under millions of tons of rock and earth.
"The mountaintop removal mining taking place in West Virginia is in blatant violation of [environmental] laws," Jim Hecker, a Trial Lawyers for Public Justice attorney who represents citizens, said when the suit was filed.
This week, the case was scheduled to come to a head.
Lawyers for citizens, regulators and coal operators were set to start a four-week trial. Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II was ready to listen to hours of complicated testimony about stream buffer zones, aquatic invertebrates and approximate original contour variances.
On Friday, all of that changed.
Haden agreed to delay the trial for three weeks, until Aug. 2. The judge gave all sides more time to hammer out the details of a settlement that could force more strict regulation of mountaintop removal.
Joe Lovett, lead lawyer for the citizens, told Haden that a draft settlement could be submitted to the judge by the middle of this week. "I believe we are very close to reaching resolution on the claims," Lovett said during a hastily convened hearing held by telephone.
Lovett said the settlement would cover "most, if not all" of the allegations against the state Division of Environmental Protection. Any allegations not included could be decided by Haden based on written legal briefs, not courtroom testimony, Lovett said.
In the last two months, DEP has issued a series of new policies to clean up its handling of post-mining land uses, hydrologic reclamation plans, contemporaneous reclamation and the approximate original contour, or AOC, rule.
"We have expressed the view that, frankly, DEP was inconsistent in its application of many of the policies that we are now potentially going to work out," said Brian Glasser, a private lawyer hired to defend DEP.
Glasser said he and Lovett were in Washington, D.C., on Friday to explain their settlement proposals to representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Office of Surface Mining and the Army Corps of Engineers.