As part of a proposed settlement with environmental groups, St. Louis-based Patriot Coal has agreed to phase out mountaintop removal mining at several of its mines in West Virginia, saying the controversial mining practice isn’t in the company’s best interest.
Under previous settlements, Patriot was required to install treatment technology at two of its coal mines to control selenium and bring the effluent into compliance with its set limits. (Selenium is a naturally-occurring element that ends up in rivers and streams when rock and soil from mountaintop removal sites are discarded. In small amounts, it is harmless, but some studies have found that it is toxic to aquatic life and humans in larger amounts.)
The company was facing deadlines to comply in 2013, but filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July. This new agreement was reached after Patriot sought to extend the deadlines.
The settlement gives Patriot more time to comply with the deadlines. But in return, the company agreed to relinquish several of its 404 permits for sites in West Virginia. 404 permits are granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and are necessary for valley fills—a technique used in large scale surface mining. Patriot will continue work on a metallurgical coal surface mine where permits are pending.
Essentially the agreement means the company will phase out its existing surface mining operations and never seek new permits for large-scale surface mines. This will likely involve eventual layoffs in Appalachia, but those wouldn’t be immediate and the company couldn’t say how many people would be affected.
According to its website, Patriot has mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri. The deal requires the company to cut the amount of coal it gets from surface mines to 3 million tons annually by 2018. Last year, 7.7 million tons of the company’s production came from surface mines.
Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield read the following statement in court:
“Patriot Coal has concluded that the continuation or expansion of surface mining, particularly large scale surface mining of the type common in central Appalachia, is not in its long term interests. Today’s proposed settlement commits Patriot Coal to phase out and permanently exit large scale surface mining and transition our business primarily toward underground mining and related small scale surface mining.
Patriot Coal recognizes that our mining operations impact the communities in which we operate in significant ways, and we are committed to maximizing the benefits of this agreement for our stakeholders, including our employees and neighbors. We believe the proposed settlement will result in a reduction of our environmental footprint.”
Patriot has two underground mines in Western Kentucky. It has one surface mine there too, but the company announced it would close that mine earlier this month. But attorney Derek Teaney of Appalachian Mountain Advocates says the settlement could have wider implications for the coal industry.
“I would certainly hope that other surface mining entities are coming to the same conclusion, that surface mining coal and its environmental consequences are just far too expensive and it’s time to stop doing it,” he said.
Third District Congressman John Yarmuth also issued a statement on the settlement, and called for federal action.
“This agreement is a clear admission of the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and a key victory for the Appalachian community. I commend Patriot Coal for acknowledging the destructive impact of mountaintop removal and for taking steps to protect the communities where it operates. An industry leader finally recognizing that it can be successful without employing this devastating practice is significant progress. Now it’s time for Congress to step up and enact legislation protecting all of Appalachia.”
The settlement still has to be approved, both by federal court and bankruptcy court.