"At some point as those leases expire ... there will be no small-scale surface mining," said Derek Teaney, another Appalachian Mountain Advocates lawyer who negotiated the deal.
There were hints of a more substantial settlement with Patriot in August, when lawyers told Chambers they had reached an "agreement in principal" that would help Patriot restructure its operations and finances as part of its bankruptcy proceeding. The deal fell through a month later, but apparently got back on track late last month, when Hatfield -- a longtime coal industry insider who held posts with Massey Energy and International Coal Group -- was promoted to both president and chief operating officer of Patriot.
Last year, Patriot ranked behind only Alpha Natural Resources in terms of total surface-mined coal produced in West Virginia, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data.
Surface mines accounted for about 30 percent of Patriot's total production of 26 million tons of coal in West Virginia and Kentucky. The company employed nearly 750 workers at strip mines, or roughly 18 percent of its total workforce, according to MSHA data.
While the agreement eventually reduces Patriot's strip-mining production to zero, it phases that reduction in starting with a cap of 6.5 million tons in 2014. Patriot's surface mining production would be limited to 6 million tons annually in 2015 and 2016, and 5 million tons in 2017 before a cap of 3 million tons becomes effective in 2018.
For perspective, the phase-in would allow Patriot's strip-mining production to continue for several years at a rate roughly equal to current levels at Patriot's two largest surface mines, the Hobet complex along the Boone-Lincoln County border and the Guyan Mine in Logan County. Together, those mines -- both with workforces represented by the United Mine Workers union -- produce roughly 5.5 million tons of coal a year with about 500 employees.
UMW President Cecil Roberts said he was glad there will be no immediate job losses, but wanted more information about Patriot's specific plans and remained concerned about whether the company will use its bankruptcy to try to dump its liabilities for pensions and health-care benefits for thousands of miners and retirees.
"Coal mining has always been an occupation of continuous change, whether it's technological change, changes in mining methods, changes in markets, or changes in regulations," Roberts said. "Companies have made strategic decisions based on those changes and workers are left to live with the consequences. That is what has happened here."
In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast apart mountains to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is shoved into valleys, burying streams.
Over the last 15 years, mountaintop removal has grown more and more controversial, as scientists have documented how the practice damages the environment and found that residents who live near large-scale surface mines face greater risk of serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects.
Since taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration has launched several initiatives to try to curb mountaintop removal, or at least more closely scrutinize new mining permits.
The moves fell well short of the mountaintop removal ban sought by citizen groups. But mining industry officials and coalfield political leaders have opposed the Obama efforts, labeling them part of a "war on coal," and succeeding in overturning U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actions in court.
Mountaintop removal issues have taken somewhat of a backseat in recent months though, as the public debate focused on how cheap natural gas has pushed many utilities away from coal, reducing the industry's share of electricity generation and bringing significant layoffs in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University researcher who has published more than 20 scientific papers linking mountaintop removal to coalfield health problems, said the Patriot settlement sounds like a positive step to help address those issues."The evidence is clear that large-scale surface mining is harmful to the environment and public health," Hendryx said. "I think this is a terrific development. I would like us to try to keep in mind that as this type of mining declines, it's going to be really important to think about what happens next, to think about different types of employment for the people who live here."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.