Coal Tattoo

Strip mining phase-out deal leave some speechless

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Photo by Vivian Stockman, OVEC. Flyover courtesy of Southwings.

Now it’s become pretty common over the last four years that any development about mountaintop removal or the coal industry in general — especially if it’s something perceived as another overreach by the Obama administration –prompts West Virginia political leaders to fall all over themselves to get out press releases offering their views.

But a funny thing happened today when word emerged from federal court in Huntington that Patriot Coal had reached a deal with three citizen groups to phase out its use of mountaintop removal and to, eventually, “permanently exit large-scale surface mining” — silence. As I write this, after 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, I’ve gotten only one statement from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and our state’s congressional delegation. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., issued this:

Our sympathy goes out to the miners impacted by this decision as they face an uncertain future in a sluggish economy. We are concerned for both the miners who may be laid off over time and for the families in surface mining communities. Like many other companies in the industry, Patriot is being forced to make some painful choices. Faced with a difficult situation, Patriot is making an effort to ensure its long term health for its employees while being sensitive to the environment.

I did get a quick note from a spokesman for Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., saying:

… Don’t think we will have comment today – still taking a look at the legal settlement and need some time to review.

Well, at least one member of Congress from neighboring Kentucky didn’t need any more time to review the Patriot deal. Rep. John Yarmuth issued this statement:

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.

Our elected leaders weren’t the only ones who didn’t have much to say today. Folks from the West Virginia Coal Association didn’t return my phone calls. Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, declined comment.  And this was all that Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, had to say:

The agreement appears to be consistent with Patriot’s long-term business plan as articulated in their statement today and in prior statements, i.e., to focus on met coal.

Citizen groups and environmentalists, obviously, had plenty to say. You can read the entire press release from the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition here. They have a backgrounder posted here that includes links to the settlement documents. A few of the quotes from those folks:

“This is an historic moment for people hardest hit by mountaintop removal coal mining,” said Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. “Tens of thousands of people have worked tirelessly to put an end to this destructive process, and today’s agreement is a major step towards ending this abhorrent form of mining and repairing the damage done to communities and ecosystems across the region. Patriot Coal may be the first company to cease mountaintop removal mining but, because of the tireless efforts of committed volunteers and community organizations, it certainly won’t be the last.”

“It’s heartening any day we learn that a major player decides that mountaintop removal is not in the best interest – of the company or of our mountains, streams, and communities,” said Jim Sconyers, Chairman of the West Virginia Sierra Club. “We look forward to the day when full implementation of this agreement is achieved.”

“We’ve been saying for many years that if companies had to pay the real costs of mountaintop removal, it would not be economically feasible,” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “Hopefully, it’s now become clear that when coal companies are required to prevent illegal selenium pollution and pay the costs for cleanup themselves it’s simply doesn’t make economic sense to continue this destructive form of mining.”

“We hope that this agreement, while holding Patriot responsible for its legacy of mining pollution, puts the company in a strong enough financial condition through its underground mining that it can honor its obligations to its retirees and workers,” said Dianne Bady of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts, whose members work at Patriot’s two largest surface mines in West Virginia, issued a pretty carefully worded statement that is actually very interesting:

My first concern about this agreement is what impact it may have on our members and their jobs. It appears that there will be no immediate job losses, which is good. As we move further down the road, we will have to see what Patriot’s specific plans are with respect to its new focus on underground and smaller surface operations. Obviously, events related to the company’s bankruptcy and how it intends to deal with its active and retired workers in that process will play a role in all of this.

We have always said that our members do not get to make the decisions about where and how coal is mined, we just mine it. The companies make those decisions, and for its own reasons, Patriot has made the decision to stop operating large-scale surface operations.

Coal mining has always been an occupation of continuous change, whether it’s technological change, changes in mining methods, changes in markets, or changes in regulations. Companies have always made strategic decisions based on those changes and workers are left to live with the consequences. That is what has happened here.

But one thing has remained constant in coal mining for the last 123 years, and that is the UMWA and the on-the-job protection and better standard of living our contracts provide miners and their families. We will still provide our members working at Patriot and at other companies with that strength, no matter what changes may come.

There was also a statement from the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Campaign in which Debbie Jarrell, Coal River Mountain Watch co-director, said:

For a company to admit that it’s harming the community is a major step, but we can’t wait for all the companies to end mountaintop removal out of the goodness of their hearts. Citizens have pleaded with Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and others for decades to stop this abominable practice, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears and government agencies have not ended the practice.  I worry for my grandchildren’s health and for the health of everyone in the community. Patriot is showing that a company doesn’t have to threaten its neighbors’ health and that mountaintop removal is unnecessary.

Still, the biggest news and the most important statement today came from Ben Hatfield, a longtime coal industry player who is now CEO of Patriot. I posted the whole thing once, but take a look if you haven’t read it all:

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.

Finally, what about the other companies that are still in the mountaintop removal business? Well, I asked Ted Pile, spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, the largest producer of surface-mined coal in West Virginia this question:

Patriot Coal says that it realizes its mountaintop removal operations have significant impacts on the communities where they operate, and it believes it is a good idea to phase out this practice, at least in part to reduce those impacts. Does Alpha have any plans to do likewise?

Here’s how Ted replied:

No, the decision and agreement is theirs and it does not affect our mining plans.