Patriot Coal concedes to activists, abandons mountaintop removal and strip mining

By Ken Ward, Jr. / West Virginia Gazette Mail

Patriot Coal has agreed to phase out mountaintop removal and other forms of strip mining, in a move Patriot officials say is in the best interests of their company, its employees and the communities where it operates.

In a deal with citizen groups and environmentalists, Patriot said it would never seek new permits for large-scale surface mining operations, according to details of the settlement that were made public in federal court Thursday afternoon.

St. Louis-based Patriot can continue some existing and smaller mining projects, but must also implement a cap on surface production and eventually stop all strip mining when existing coal leases expire.

Ben Hatfield, president and CEO of Patriot, said the plan should help his company emerge from bankruptcy, focus on underground mining, and curb mountaintop removal’s effects on coalfield communities.

“Patriot Coal recognizes that our mining operations impact the communities in which we operate in significant ways,” Hatfield told U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers. “We believe the proposed settlement will result in a reduction of our environmental footprint.”

The deal does not require Patriot to immediately close any mines or lay off any workers. The company must cut corporate-wide surface production starting in 2014, and gradually reduce it to no more than 3 million tons annually — less than half of 2011 surface output — by 2018.

Patriot, the second largest producer of surface-mined coal in West Virginia, becomes the first U.S. coal operator to announce plans to abandon mountaintop removal, a controversial practice linked to serious environmental damage and coalfield public health problems.

“Patriot’s decision that mountaintop removal and other large surface mines are not in its best interests is the inevitable conclusion for any mining company that actually has to pay the costs of the environmental harm it creates,” said Joe Lovett, an Appalachian Mountain Advocates lawyer who negotiated the deal with Patriot on behalf of the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Lawyers for both sides unveiled the settlement — which has quietly been in the works for months — during a surprisingly low-key hearing in U.S. District Court in Huntington.

Unlike most developments involving West Virginia’s coal industry, elected officials and other government leaders did not rush Thursday to issue public statements offering their views on the Patriot settlement.

From The West Virginia Gazette Mail

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