Since late 1997, when mountaintop removal first made headlines, Arch Coal Inc. officials have argued that they can't make money mining in steep mountain terrain unless their draglines operate full tilt, and unless they are allowed to bury miles of streams.
Can Southern West Virginia coal be mined without such extreme measures?
At numerous public hearings, mountaintop removal critics asked companies to scale back, to tear down fewer mountains, or not to fill in so many creeks.
Industry officials always replied that if mountaintop removal were limited, the Appalachian coal industry would die. Coal seams in Boone and Logan counties are too thin, they said. Competition from larger Wyoming surface mines is too tough, and the global economy too brutal.
"If somebody could tell me how to mine this much coal with picks and shovels, I'd be glad to hear it," said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts. "But it can't be done." On March 3, Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II temporarily blocked Arch Coal's plan to open its 3,100-acre Spruce No. 1 Mine, the largest mountaintop removal operation in state history.
Haden said he wanted to get to the bottom of arguments that mountaintop removal and valley fills violate federal water pollution and mining rules. The judge scheduled a trial to start July 13.
Twice since Haden issued his injunction, hundreds of miners gathered on the state Capitol steps to protest the decision. At one of those rallies, Roberts joined hands with coal industry lobbyists and Gov.
Cecil Underwood to show support for full-scale mountaintop removal.
"The environmental extremists do not want to listen to our ideas for compromises, because their goal is simply to shut down the nation's coal industry," Roberts said.
Behind the scenes, something very different was happening. The coal industry was getting scared and starting to back away from its all-or-nothing posture.
If Haden continued to rule with environmentalists, all valley fills might be outlawed. Mountaintop removal could be severely cut back or banned. Underground mining might be hurt as well. Deep mines also fill streams when companies dispose of preparation plant waste.
Since mid-March, company lawyers have been sitting down to talk with environmentalists to try to find a compromise. Coal operators offered to do more to protect the environment, if they could count on getting a steady flow of new permits.
Committed to restarting In secret meetings over the last three months, lawyers on all sides - industry, environmental groups, regulators and the UMW - have negotiated to find an alternative to all-out mountaintop removal.
Everyone is looking for a middle ground between giant earth-moving machines operating at peak capacity and miners toting picks and shovels: - A week after Haden ruled that Arch Coal could not open its mine in Logan County, UMW lawyers filed a motion to intervene. The union hired a miningengineer to help find another way to operate the mine.
"The UMWA is committed to exploring every possible avenue to resolve this dispute," Roberts said later.
- A week after that, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining announced a new mountaintop removal policy: Coal companies could continue to tear down mountains. But they would have to rebuild them, by putting less rock and earth into valley fills and more back onto hilltops.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., a frequent OSM critic, said: "The success of this proposal could also create an environment in which the environmental plaintiffs could find it beneficial to seek a settlement with [the state Division of Environmental Protection] on the outstanding [Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act] issues in their lawsuit." - In mid-April, another mining expert, hired by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, gave Haden a report which describes how coal operators could mine the area and do less damage to hills and streams.
"The creative mix of mining methods and maximizing the use of excess spoil disposal areas could create a radically different mine plan," the engineer's report said.
- Also in mid-April, Arch Coal filed a request for an "individual" valley fill permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its new mine.
Previously, Arch Coal wanted the mine authorized under a "nationwide permit." Under the nationwide permit, Arch Coal would promise to follow a set of mining conditions. Regulators would not review the specifics.
If Arch Coal applied for an individual permit, regulators would go through the application closely. They might make the company reduce the size of the mine. The permit could take much longer to get.
Today leaders on both sides say a settlement before the July 13 trial is possible - perhaps not likely, but at least possible.
"I think there is a way to get to that point," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
"They're going through long meetings and pretty good meetings," Raney said late last week. "I understand things are going pretty well." In a recent interview, Arch Coal Executive Vice President Ken Woodring said, "We're certainly anxious to come up with a solution, and we'll do everything we can to get to that point." In court papers, lawyers for DEP Director Michael Miano said they are taking steps to make sure future mining permits comply with the law and minimize environmental damage.
"When all is said and done, plaintiffs' attacks on the state's processes, designed to halt permitting and mining, have been or will be substantially negated," DEP lawyers told Haden in late May.
"Improvements in mining methods have been suggested," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
"Whether or not they are enough, and will resolve all of the issues that are out there regarding impacts to the environment and the communities, I don't know." The future of Pigeonroost Pigeonroost Hollow is a narrow, tree-lined valley near Blair Mountain in Logan County.
If Haden hadn't issued his injunction, Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining would already have expanded its huge Dal-Tex mountaintop removal mine into the hollow.
Explosives would blast hilltops into rubble. Smaller electric shovels and dozers would already be removing the first layer of rubble, down to the first coal seam. Coal from that seam would be mined and trucked away. Dozers would level a flat plain, where the dragline can sit.
A dragline is a huge, cranelike earth-moving machine, sometimes 20 stories tall and weighing 4,000 tons. Its shovel-bucket digs 75 cubic yards or more in one bite.
The dragline would scoop out the rest of the rock and earth. A dozen coal seams would be dug out along the way.
Much of the rubble would be dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams beneath valley fills. Nearly 5 square miles of rugged Logan County hills would have been stripped.
More than 4 miles of streams would be buried with enough rock and earth to fill 28 million railroad cars. Valley fills would cover 1 2/3 miles of Pigeonroost Branch, and 1 mile each of White Oak Branch, Old House Branch and the Right Fork of Seng Camp Creek.
Over the next 15 years, Hobet Mining would haul 80 million tons of coal, worth about $2 billion, out of Pigeonroost Hollow.
When he issued his injunction, Haden ruled the mining would do "permanent and irreversible" damage to Pigeonroost Hollow.
"If the forest canopy of Pigeonroost Hollow is leveled, exposing the stream to extreme temperatures, and aquatic life is destroyed, these harms cannot be undone," Haden wrote in a 47-page opinion. "If the forest wildlife are driven away by the blasting, noise, and the lack of safe nesting and eating areas, they cannot be coaxed back." 'State of the art' mining In July 1998, when the Highlands Conservancy filed a lawsuit to curb mountaintop removal, the group's lawyers hired John Morgan to be their expert witness.
A British citizen and graduate of the London School of Mines, Morgan now operates his consulting firm, Morgan Worldwide Mining Consultants Inc., out of Lexington, Ky.
Over the last 20 years, Morgan has traveled all over the world to design mines: gold mines in Indonesia, granite mines in the Ukraine, diamond mines in Arkansas. But Morgan doesn't like what Hobet Mining proposed to do to Pigeonroost Branch.
In a November 1998 report to Haden, Morgan concluded, "The approach utilized by Hobet does not reflect the 'state of the art' of the industry." Since he wrote that, Morgan has reviewed other West Virginia mountaintop removal proposals. He's convinced it can be done better.
Mining companies can produce almost as much coal and make almost as much money. At the same time, they can tear down fewer mountains and bury fewer streams, Morgan says.
"Simply reverting to the mantra that its design is the best and allows for the maximum coal extraction negates the ability to review alternatives," Morgan said in an April report filed with the U.S. District Court in Charleston.
"An alternate design might now be optimum for Hobet, but it would comply with legal and regulatory requirements and still allow for profitable mining." According to his report, Morgan thinks mountaintop removal in West Virginia has gotten out of hand. Here's why: Operators use much larger equipment. In the early 1980s, 85-ton trucks were the largest used in West Virginia mining. Back then, strip mines and valley fills were much smaller. Generally, fills contained less than 250,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt.