Patriot Agrees to End Mountaintop Removal

Patriot Coal,Patriot Coal, one of the largest coal companies operating in Appalachia, has announced that it will end its surface mining operations – including mountaintop removal – in return for an extension on the time schedule for installing expensive pollution controls at several of its West Virginia mines. The agreement was negotiated by attorneys from Appalachian Mountain Advocates representing the Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. Patriot filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy this past July, though this settlement arises from previous litigation by the groups against Patriot.

The original lawsuits were about selenium pollution in violation of the Clean Water Act. The groups submitted evidence that Patriot and three of its subsidiaries were releasing selenium above allowable limits at 42 outlets discharging from ten West Virginia mines. The settlement involves 8 specific actions Patriot agreed to take –

1. Retire significant and expensive infrastructure that is essential for mountaintop removal mining, including immediately retiring the Catenary drag line and retiring the Hobet drag line by the end of 2015.

2. Agree not to allow infrastructure such as haul roads and coal preparation plants to be used by other mining companies in Central Appalachia, except as required by existing agreements and arrangements.

3. Relinquish its remaining rights under a Clean Water Act section 404 fill permit that was already issued for the Colony Bay complex. Withdraw two section 404 permit applications – one for a Hobet Coyote mine and one for a Colony Bay mine – currently pending before the Army Corps [of Engineers].

4. Commit not to file any new applications for section 404 permits for large-scale surface mines.

5. Commit not to open any stand-alone surface mines, with the exception of the Huff Creek metallurgical coal mine for which an application for a section 404 permit is currently pending. Provided, however, that the groups retain the right to challenge the section 404 permit for the Huff Creek mine if EPA indicates in writing that it has concerns about the mine’s impacts on water quality.

6. Limit small scale surface mining to facilities associated with existing and planned underground mining complexes.

7. Commit that coal production from remaining surface mining will not exceed 3 million tons per year by 2018, and that production from surface mines will never exceed that amount.

8. Donate $500,000 to a West Virginia non-profit organization to be identified by the parties.

The specifics of the Clean Water Act, Section 404 allows the discharge of dredged or fill material into the navigable waters at specified disposal sites. This is one aspect of mountaintop removal mining that most damages the environment, as thousands of tons of rock and debris are dumped into what used to be the mountain drainage watercourses that are the headwaters for downstream reservoirs and rivers from which populated areas draw their drinking water.

The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] regulates selenium for both marine life and drinking water as a naturally occurring toxin. Mining operations tend to concentrate the natural selenium in their rubble and waste streams, in the case of Patriot’s mines thereby violating the established ‘safe’ limits for the metal, which in trace amounts is nutritionally essential. At high levels it is toxic to all marine life forms as well as wildlife and humans who drink contaminated water.

The term Metallurgical Coal refers to “coking coal,” which is low-sulfur, low-ash coal that can be heated to remove volatiles and produce porous coke that produces very high heat but little smoke and is used in the making of metals.

The statement from Patriot:

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.

This settlement is consistent with Patriot Coal’s 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.

Patriot Coal urges the Court to approve the settlement because it strengthens the Company’s ability to continue operating with our nearly 4000 employees, and significantly increases the likelihood that we will emerge from the chapter 11 process as a viable business, able to satisfy our environmental and other obligations.

Links to WLJ Coverage of Coal Issues:

Desperate for Fossil fuels: King Coal
Old King Coal, a Filthy Old Soul
Old King Coal vs. Reality
EPA Halts MTR Permits for Review
The Last Mountain: A Call to Action
The Mountains Cry: A Vibrant Voice Passes On