Patriot’s move away from mountaintop removal: If they ignore it, maybe it isn’t really happening

November 21, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

West Virginia’s political leaders continue to say very, very little about the major news latest week that one of the region’s largest coal producers is moving away from — and eventually abandoning altogether — the use of mountaintop removal and all other types of surface coal mining.

As noted previously, we finally did get a comment from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.:

There is a lot of change happening in the coal industry, and it’s important that we all work through these issues together and focus on investing in clean coal for the future. I’ve made it clear to Patriot that I have very real concerns about protecting miners’ health and pension benefits, and I hope this is a step in that direction. They need to stand by the promises they’ve made to their miners.

And a bit later, we got this comment from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin:

The Governor hopes this decision the company has made will help them recover financially and continue to produce and employ in the West Virginia coal industry.

Oddly enough, one of the most substantive comment so far came from Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., who issued this statement:

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.

Rep. McKinley is right that coal companies are being forced to make some painful choices — painful especially for their employees and the communities where they live. But even his statement didn’t really focus on what’s really happening here, are at least part of what’s happening: When forced to comply with the law, coal companies find that the costs of mountaintop removal are so high that they can’t do that type of mining and make the sort of profit their want.

Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental policy at the Vermont Law School, explained it in our follow-up story in the Sunday Gazette-Mail:

When the law finally catches up with industries like the coal industry, and it starts to be reflected on their balance sheets, that’s when you see changes in corporate thinking.

Professor Parenteau reminded me of the study last year, published by the journal American Economic Review, detailing some of the “externalized” damages caused by the coal industry.

Heck, even Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield pointed to these sorts of overriding economics, first in his company’s prepared statement, which he read in federal court last week:

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.

… and again in an interview with me after the court hearing:

It’s a matter of industry’s natural need to reduce risks. I think it recognizes the reality in our industry that large-scale surface mines have a lot of risks associated with them both in terms of market and regulatory risks.

Now, maybe industry officials like Bill Raney are right, and Patriot’s situation is so different from other coal producers that it’s wrong to suggest Patriot’s phase-out of surface mining could be the start of a trend. As Bill told me:

It’s one company trying to restructure itself. This doesn’t change anything. I don’t think you can apply this universally across the industry or across the state.

But the real reason that we don’t hear much from political leaders about this Patriot settlement is that other factors — such as the low price of natural gas and the mining out of Southern West Virginia’s best and easiest-to-get coal reserves — are also at play here. As mining engineer John Morgan told me:

There are only a limited number of large-scale surface mine-able reserves left and it’s not attractive economically. There are still opportunities for limited-scale surface mining. There will still be surface mining, but it won’t be large and it won’t be with draglines.

If coalfield elected officials were to admit these things — I mean really admit them — then they would need to also admit the need to take some action, to come up with a plan for dealing with the economic implications of a major coal decline. So far, our leaders just aren’t able to do that.

9 Responses to “Patriot’s move away from mountaintop removal: If they ignore it, maybe it isn’t really happening”

  1. Jim Sconyers says:

    For decades we the people have subsidized coal companies. Against our will we’ve paid in harm to our health, at a cost of many dollars and even lives, and we’ve paid in the degradation of our communities. Now at least one company is forced to put millions in remediating the damage they cause onto their own P&L sheet. One can hope this aspect of Patrriot’s decision might be a precedent setter.

  2. Yogi says:

    Have you ever stopped to think that a bankrupt company who will mine out their surface mines in just a few years had nothing to lose by saying they would not MTR in the future? Patriot probably won’t mine anything, they will sell off their reserves and fade into history, the coal will be mined by someone else not bound by these statements and the delay in the Selenium plan which is what they wanted will continue. Mr. Hatfield never said they destroyed communities or anything else, he said that “had an impact”, that is an non commital statement if I ever heard one.

    How about showing a picture of a reclaimed mine instead of showing an active pit and acting like that is what it will always look like! Do a little real jounalism and cover the reclaimed portion and show how it looks and report on the water coming from those reclaimed mines!

  3. Denise Giardina says:

    How about showing MOUNTAINS next to the flat scrubby plains of “reclaimed” mines?

  4. unbiased2 says:

    Cities, housing developments, shopping malls and centers, sports arenas, factories, call centers, and airports cannot be constructed on the sides of mountains or in the hollows. The comparatively very small areas of flat land in the few narrow valleys of southern WV are mostly subject to flooding.
    So they might be unsightly to some they provide the only hope for significant commercial development and jobs creation in southern WV.
    Moreover, one has to get in an airplane to view these “plains”. Viewed from one the reclaimed land is beautiful as it sits surrounded by forests, especially when the leaves are on. They are not “scrubby”, they are green with vegetation.
    The reclaimed MTR sites in southern WV are located in just a few counties: Boone, Kanawha, Mingo, Raleigh, and Logan, but to hear rabid MTR critics one would think they are in all the 55 counties. Even in these counties the percentage of land affected by MTR mining is small.
    As Yogi says above, why not show aerial photos of MTR sites after reclamation and practice real journalism rather than carry out a mean spirited vendetta?

  5. floyd campbell says:

    Patriot is just using this promise to get out of their obligation to their retired employees. They know that if they throw this into their reorganization plan , there will be a ground swell of support among the enviromental community. Please, do not allow another coal company to to take a comfortable retirement , earned with many years of hard work in their mines, away from their employees.

  6. Tom Saladyga says:

    To address some previous comments:
    #1 Why do we, in Appalachia, feel the need to copy the same methods of ‘development’ employed by flatlanders in south Jersey or northern VA, for example? Instead of chasing this dream, why not create our own?
    #2 Vegetation communities on reclaimed mine sites are not equal to native Appalachian forests. Not in structure, function (e.g. nutrient cycling), species composition, or intrinsic value. Just like economic development in the form of strip malls and penitentiaries is not equal to a placed-based, socially and ecologically appropriate economy stimulated by local creativity and ingenuity.

  7. Before I comment, please know i sympathize with the coal miners and their families greatly, but not the coal companies. My negative remarks are directed at the owners, officers and major stockholders. See the remainder of my comments below. But know that when things ljke this happen, the people and community have to realize things afe changing. The coal industy wasnt aware of the environmental damage tjey were doing until the last 60 or 70 years. I wont mention the human cost. That would be insulting to you people of W. Virginia. I wish you people who are sticking up for the se milionaire owners, officers, etc and trying to gloss over truth about how they robbed you of your husbands, fathers and sons and ruined your land cmd to your senses.

    Whats going on here is the same as it ihas been in all other major industries , such as steel in PA and Ohio, automotive in Mich, Ohio, Il,, etc, Aerospace, Rubber in Akron Ohio, paper mills in TN, Tobacco all over the south, fishing up and down Americas coasts, rivers and lakes, and last but not least the oil and lumbering industry. There are two constants in all of these cases: 1) the Officers, Owners, etc read the writing on the wall and realize they cant get away with using up WE THE PEOPLES natural resources, pollute our air aend water and use their golden parachutes or lifeboats to jump ship becore it sinks. 2) the loyal hardworking employees who in some cases actually give their lives for thd Company, go down wkth the ship or left adrift in a lifeboat . 3) The communities , environment and peoples health get ruined as well. Please…stand up and fight for yourselves and neighbors and your enviroment..not for the people and corporations that did the damage. Good Luck!,

  8. Eastwood82 says:

    I would pray that Patriot does not forget the coal miners who will still be working for them in the underground mines. Many of the MTR miners could go underground if they so desired. The wages are the same, so what is the big deal about there not being any coal mining in Southern WV. Well, anyway that is just my opinion for what it worth. I wish all coal miners a Happy Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas. God bless you all both union and non-union.

  9. floyd campbell says:

    I went into the mines after I graduated from college. I have spent the last 36 years mining the coal that powered this nation. If you only see Patriot ending MTM, then you are no different than the coal executives that you decry at every chance, because the people who mined the coal will pay the price. I will garuntee that ending MTM is only going to happen if Patriot no longer has to pay the retirement medical and pension of its employees. If you don’t know this, then you do not understand the nature of the companies that you are fighting.

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