An hour after the federal courthouse closed Monday evening, lawyers for state regulators and coalfield residents walked in together and filed 50 pieces of paper that could severely limit mountaintop removal mining.
Joe Lovett, lead lawyer for the citizens, and Brian Glasser, a lawyer for the Division of Environmental Protection, delivered the documents to settle most of a landmark lawsuit filed in July 1998 to try to curb mountaintop removal.
Under the settlement:
Coal operators would have to rebuild more of the mountains they tear down or blow apart to uncover Southern West Virginia's valuable low-sulfur coal reserves.
Companies would have to make good on the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act's promise that land flattened by mountaintop removal be developed to provide communities with economic benefits once the coal is gone.
Southern West Virginia residents could receive free land from coal companies under a new "homesteading" post-mining land use for mountaintop removal sites.
Mountaintop removal applications will receive more scrutiny to make sure they protect water resources and disturb as little land as possible.
Environmental groups would help the state write a set of new regulations to further restrict mountaintop removal. Coal industry officials would also be involved.
A committee of industry and environmental group experts will be formed to periodically review mining permits to make sure they comply with the law.
The settlement, expected for weeks, appeared to be in jeopardy last week. The trial date next week was rapidly approaching, and lawyers had several times predicted a deal would be filed only to see it fall through.
Lovett and Glasser had hoped to file the settlement proposal before the courthouse doors closed at 5 p.m. Monday. A clerk in U.S. District Court allowed them into the building at 6 p.m. to file their documents. Both lawyers declined comment as they left the courthouse.
In those papers, Lovett and Glasser said the settlement represents "substantial progress towards achieving positive and innovative changes in the regulation of surface mining in West Virginia."
But they also said that more time will be needed to iron out further details of the settlement.
In court filings, the lawyers told Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden that DEP would accept public comments on the proposal for 30 days.
Glasser and his law partner, Ben Bailey, will "consider the comments received concerning the proposed [settlement], and ... pursue appropriate action as a result of the comments."
On Monday, Glasser sent a notice of the public comment period to Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, and Secretary of State Ken Hechler.
In that notice, Glasser also said that the settlement is expected to cost the state $810,000 this fiscal year, and about $145,000 each year thereafter:
The settlement would cost DEP about $75,000 a year to hire a new engineer and biologist.
Hiring two experts to help write new mining regulations would involve a one-time cost of $15,000 to DEP.
Quarterly meetings of the permit advisory panel would cost DEP about $40,000, and irregular meetings of a panel of experts to review mining plans would cost the agency about $30,000 a year.
DEP would pay 75 percent of the citizen groups' legal fees and expert costs. This may cost DEP about $650,000.