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Breaking: Patriot agrees to huge selenium cleanup

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Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

In federal court down in Huntington, attorneys for the Sierra Club and other groups have just filed copies of a major lawsuit settlement that insiders are saying could require Patriot Coal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to treat selenium pollution from three of the company’s major mountaintop removal mining complexes here in West Virginia.

The deal will require Patriot to build and operate new treatment systems for 43 water discharge outfalls on 10 different permits — far more than 14 outlets covered in a previous deal with Alpha Natural Resources or the five outfalls included in a settlement with Arch Coal.

And think about it — the most recent financial filings from Patriot say the company was already expecting to pay $95 million to install treatment systems for just four outlets at two of its mines, under a 2010 ruling in which U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers held the company in contempt for not moving quickly enough to end its selenium pollution violations (see here, here and here for more on that case)

Attorney Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, which is representing citizen groups in selenium cleanup litigation, told me today:

This is the culmination of years of work on this issue. We’re very pleased that the coal industry will have to pay the costs of its business and clean up polluted waters.

This new settlement — which I’ve posted online here — covers water pollution outlets at Patriot’s Hobet 21 complex along the Boone-Lincoln border (where selenium pollution has been previously documented here and here), the Samples Mine complex in the Cabin Creek area, and the Ruffner Mine in Logan County. According to the Sierra Club:

The settlement requires Patriot to install treatment technology on a set schedule to bring selenium discharges within acceptable levels. In addition, the company will pay penalties of $7.5 million, with the vast majority of those funds directed to the West Virginia Land Trust. Patriot will be subject to significant additional penalties for any violations that occur after the compliance date for each source of pollution.

Jim Sconyers, chair of the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said:

Several years ago, the coal industry said that there was no way to treat selenium pollution from their mines. But now they’re agreeing to treat that pollution. This settlement, and other recent actions against Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, shows that mining companies can do far more than they admit to clean up their pollution.

Dianne Bady with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said:

West Virginia coal mines are finally starting to address their legacy of selenium pollution. Mine operators and regulators in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia need to follow suit.

Interestingly, the deal also requires Patriot to drop any future plans for mining a major permit — and creating significant selenium pollution — at its Jupiter-Callisto Mine in Boone County, which is located near the home of anti-mountaintop removal activist Maria Gunnoe, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2009 for her work to protect West Virginia mountains, streams and communities.

Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said:

Although treatment may be sufficient to address these existing selenium problems, ultimately the industry and regulators need to recognize that it’s not appropriate to mine coal where disturbing selenium laden rock strata will release harmful amounts of pollution.

UPDATED: Here is a statement just issued by Patriot Coal —

Patriot Coal Corporation (NYSE: PCX) today announced that it has entered into a consent decree with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Inc., the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Inc. and the Sierra Club to resolve claims under the Clean Water Act relating to Patriot’s mining activities in West Virginia.

“Selenium is an issue that many companies involved in coal mining must confront.  Today’s settlement by Patriot represents a strategic response to this challenging issue.  We are pleased that this settlement provides a comprehensive framework for Patriot to address selenium across our properties going forward,” stated Patriot President and Chief Executive Officer Richard M. Whiting.  “We believe the consent decree serves the interests of both the public and our stockholders.”

As a result of the negotiated settlement, the Company has agreed to a comprehensive plan which provides for the necessary time and flexibility in the development, selection and implementation of emerging technologies to meet compliance deadlines in the future.  To resolve claims related to the consent decree, the Company will pay $7.5 million in civil penalties, to be allocated between the federal government and the West Virginia Land Trust for land preservation projects within the Kanawha River and Guyandotte River watersheds.

The consent decree, which has been filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, is subject to a public comment period and must be approved by the Court before it becomes effective.