Arch Coal Inc. lawyer Roger Wolfe warned a federal judge Friday that a ruling against the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history "will be a mortal blow to the coal industry."
Wolfe and lawyers for government agencies debated the issue with lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy on Friday in closing arguments before Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II.
Haden said he would rule "within a few days" on whether to further delay permits for the 3,100-acre mine, proposed by Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining, with a preliminary injunction.
After a 11/2-hour hearing, Haden emphasized that his ruling on the preliminary injunction for one mining permit won't resolve a larger case over problems with mountaintop removal permitting.
"There is a lot more to resolve," the judge said.
Mountaintop removal mining blasts off hilltops. Earth-moving machines dig out valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into valleys and streams.
On Friday, environmental lawyer Joe Lovett asked Haden to force state and federal agencies to require mountaintop removal to comply with stream buffer zone rules and approximate original contour reclamation requirements.
"Hobet, the [Division of Environmental Protection], and the Corps of Engineers should not be allowed to twist the law to suit the industry's move to bigger machines," Lovett said.
Wolfe, lead lawyer for Hobet Mining, listed possible economic damages to the company from permit delays: an idle $70 million investment, 500 jobs, $20 million in lost revenue and $1.6 million in lost tax revenue.
"Layoffs will begin soon" if the permit is delayed longer, Wolfe said. "The impact to Arch is obvious and catastrophic.
"Love it or hate it, coal is West Virginia in many ways," Wolfe told the judge. "Wipe it out and you better be able to deal with the consequences."
Wolfe argued that the permit in question is no different than other mountaintop removal permits approved by regulators in the past.
"I think it's conceded by all that the extent and magnitude of this particular permit application is significant," Haden said. "It would be the largest in state history.
"From the standpoint of scale, I think we're talking about many square miles, of a rather complete change in water, topography and wildlife," Haden said. "We're not talking about losing a particular tree."
Hobet Mining wants to conduct mountaintop removal mining on a 5-square-mile permit proposed for Pigeonroost Branch near Blair, Logan County.