Coal Tattoo

Samples update: High-profile MTR mine shutting down


Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

The first time I went there, it was called the Red Warrior Mine, named for the Cabin Creek community where it was located. That was 15 years ago, April 1994. Then-owner Arch Mineral Corp. was still assembling the dragline shovel it brought in from a mine in Illinois.

At nearly 2,300 acres, the Red Warrior permit was easily the biggest strip-mining permit ever issued by West Virginia regulators. In 1994, Arch renamed the operation the Samples Mine, after company Chairman Ronald Eugene Samples. Samples had been instrumental in Arch Coal buying the property from Lewisburg coal operator Lawson Hamilton in 1989.

(Interestingly, St. Louis-based Patriot Coal has apparently been trying to change the name of the complex to Paint Creek. It doesn’t seem to have caught on, as even the WARN notice sent out about the closure called it the Samples Mine).

Since that first permit, the operating company Catenary Coal has received permits for more than 10,000 more acres in the area. Just about two weeks ago, WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman approved the latest permit, a 276-acre one called the “N-Extension.”

As much as any mining operation in Appalachia, the Samples Mine  has been at the center of the debate over mountaintop removal. In large part, that’s because parts of it are visible from a public road far up Cabin Creek and from Larry Gibson’s family cemetery at Kayford. Photos from Larry’s place have appeared in news media around the world (including the masthead of Coal Tattoo).

whiting.jpgNow, as first reported in this morning’s Charleston Gazette, the mine’s current owner, Patriot Coal Corp., is shutting down — at least for now. Note that Patriot Chief Executive Officer Richard Whiting explained the move this way:

As we continue to balance our production levels with the soft thermal coal demand, our strategy is to concentrate production at lower-cost mining complexes. By ceasing operations at this higher-cost surface mine, Patriot will keep valuable permitted reserves in the ground until the market yields more favorable pricing and margins.

The Patriot move is the latest in a line of coal company moves to cut production, responding to weak demand and slumping prices, a situation outlined last week by The Wall Street Journal in this story. This particular mine closur will cost 314 people their jobs.

While coal industry supporters would probably love to jump on the Samples closure as an example of how environmentalists or the Obama administration are hampering surface mining in the country, Patriot officials did not mention in their announcement any problems the company has had getting needed permits to continue at the site. As I mentioned, the company had just received one new permit, and no permits for Samples appear on the lists of Clean Water Act authorizations that the Obama EPA wants to look at more closely.

We’ll have a little more on this in tomorrow’s Gazette …

UPDATED, 10:50 a.m. Tuesday, … Here’s a link to  today’s story.