In a historic move, Patriot Coal announced Nov. 15 its intention to phase out all of its large-scale strip mining in part of a deal in a selenium pollution lawsuit brought by some of our allies. The latter put out a release today. Particularly, Patriot has agreed to a 5 year plan to cut surface production to 3 million tons a year cap, less than half of current production. They have agreed not to apply for any future valley fill permits or acquire any new coal property for surface mining. And they are selling their draglines! In exchange for these and some other restrictions, the plaintiffs have agreed to extend Patriot’s time limits for implementing court-ordered selenium treatment and not to litigate against one of Patriot’s mine unless the EPA steps in.
The most important part of all this may be a truly unprecedented statement by CEO Ben Hatfield in Federal Court.
“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.”
For the first time ever, a coal industry executive has publicly admitted that large-scale surface mining has serious consequences for the communities around it and abandoning the practice would reduce that harm. This is big. Very big. Perhaps just as large is another statement by CEO Hatfield.
“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.”
Patriot said this is part of their long-term plan to refocus their business on deep mining metallurgical coal, as other producers are doing in Central Appalachia. Patriot has seen the writing on the wall. Not only are the cold hard economic realities of the coal market changing, but our movement has grown stronger, smarter, and better able to hold companies accountable for the damage they are doing to communities. As Cindy Rank of the WV Highlands Conservancy put it, “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. 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.”
Patriot has also said this settlement will help them emerge from their recent bankruptcy stronger and more able to honor their existing obligations. RAMPS hopes that includes their obligations to UMWA retirees and stands with those miners in their fight for the benefits they deserve.
Yesterday was a big milestone for our movement, but there is still a long way to go. The other major coal companies in Appalachia show no signs of following Patriot’s lead and it remains to be seen what effect this agreement will have on total surface-mining. We are committed to continuing the struggle until all coal companies are forced to admit that continued large-scale strip mining isn’t in anyone’s interest anymore. Debbie Jarrell of Coal River Mountain Watch reminds us why the fight isn’t over yet.
“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.”
A copy of the settlement is here.