No more mountaintop mining?

WITH last week’s announcement that one of the country’s largest mountaintop removal producers would stop using the method, ILN wanted to know if it was the beginning of the end for MTR? Some Appalachian experts disagree so it may not appear to be the case.
No more mountaintop mining? No more mountaintop mining? No more mountaintop mining? No more mountaintop mining? No more mountaintop mining?

Image courtesy, Patriot Coal

Donna Schmidt

“We expect that permit applications for all allowable mining types will continue to be submitted to the WVDEP in coming years,” West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluide said.

He noted that while his agency regulated lawful mining practices as allowed for in public policy, that policy was defined by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

“Whether or not a particular method is used is not our decision to make,” he said.

ILN also spoke to two representatives of the West Virginia Coal Association, one of the largest and most outspoken coal advocacy groups in the country, particularly as it relates to industry policy and regulations.

“Patriot’s decision to move away from [mountaintop mining] doesn't reflect an industry trend towards other mining methods,” senior vice president Chris Hamilton said.

“Rather, it was factored on many financial and operational issues as Patriot struggles through its present difficulties.”

WVCA president Bill Raney concurred, noting that one producer’s decision did not reflect the future of coal, especially in the MTR-heavy state of West Virginia.

“That was a unique decision that was made by one company based on its efforts to restructure and … it should not have any impact on other companies seeking permits or currently operation on those permits," he said.

In its statement, Patriot Coal officials said they recognized their impact on the communities where they operated was “significant”

Raney said the company’s reference to a “significant” impact was different than those opposed to the practice, which saw the statement as admitting MTR was damaging.

“I look at significant to be beneficial,” he said.

“I don't read that negatively as opponents of mining would like to believe what it says. It says significant; it doesn't say problematic."

Kentucky will also feel the effect of Patriot’s decision. Another coal-rich state, it will likely feel the ripple effect of what will almost certainly mean more lost production jobs.

While state mining officials from the Energy and Environment Cabinet declined to speculate on the future of MTR, Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett told local news station WYMT last weekend that business would continue normally as far as he was concerned.

“They've made this decision based on their business plan, based on what seems to be more of a focus in metallurgical coal, which has a higher margin, a higher price as we all know for met coal that's used to make steel," he said.

He noted that, in the western Kentucky coalfields, just 15% of coal mining was from surface methods, and half the coal in eastern Kentucky was extracted through surface mining.

Ultimately, MTR will remain an integral part of Kentucky’s coal mining industry, he said, and could be performed in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.

Troubled Patriot, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy organization in July, said November 16 that it would completely phase out its large-scale surface mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia as part of an agreement with a trio of environmental groups that sued it over pollution claims.

The outcome stems from claims the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Sierra Club made under the Clean Water Act relating to Patriot’s surface mining activities in West Virginia and pollution from several of its operations.

The deal, presented to US District Judge Robert Chambers in Huntington, West Virginia, allows the Missouri-based miner to postpone as much as $US27 million in compliance-related expenses into 2014 and beyond, including an extension to those changes under the Hobet 22 permit from next May to August 2014.

In exchange for the extra time to place the selenium treatment systems, Patriot agreed to gradually eliminate its mountaintop removal sites and have maximum caps attached to the coal tonnage produced from its strip mines.

Additionally, Patriot will withdraw two applications for Clean Water Act section 404 valley fill permits that are pending with the Army Corps of Engineers, and surrender all remaining rights under a third permit.

It will not apply for any additional large-scale surface mine permits and also will not open any stand-alone surface mines. Any small scale surface mining will be conducted only in conjunction with existing and planned underground mining.

The litigation resolution was a must-do for Patriot during the proceedings of its bankruptcy. It serves to enhance its liquidity and increase the likelihood it will emerge from its reorganization protection with a viable business.

“Importantly, this proposed settlement allows Patriot to continue mining according to existing permits and is consistent with our long-term business plan to focus capital on expanding higher-margin metallurgical coal production and limiting thermal coal investments to selective opportunities where geologic and regulatory risks are minimized,” president and chief executive officer Bennett Hatfield said.

The settlement remains subject to the approval of the District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, which will come after a public comment period.

It also will need the green-light of the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, where Patriot has filed its Chapter 11.

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