Answering Some Questions About the Patriot Settlement

Mountaintop removal mining at Patriot’s Hobet mine.
Photo by Vivian Stockman.
Flyover courtesy SouthWings.org

The State Journal has listed the news regarding the groundbreaking November settlement between OVEC and others groups, and Patriot Coal as one of the top ten news stories of 2012.

Patriot agreed to phase out large-scale surface mining (mountaintop removal) beginning with a series of drastic annual tonnage reductions on their surface mined coal. The company plans to increase its underground mining.

Since the news first broke, we received some questions about the settlement, to which I will respond here.

The settlement agreement stipulates that Patriot must relinquish two permit applications for large-scale surface mines, and one permit that has already been granted. Much of the coal Patriot produces by surface mining is from land that the company leases from large land holding companies. We’ve been asked “what happens if some other company decides to mine the coal on that leased land, after Patriot gives up their permits applications? Can’t some other company just step in and use mountaintop removal to get that coal?”

It would be difficult, if not impossible, for another company to profitably mine the coal that is covered under the granted-but-relinquished Patriot 404 permit or the applied-for permits that Patriot has relinquished.

One reason for this is because Patriot has agreed, in suitably binding legal language, that any other company wanting to strip mine that coal, cannot use any of Patriot’s infrastructure to get the coal out of the mine – like load out facilities, railroads and processing plants. So, any company wanting to strip mine that land would also have to invest in all-new infrastructure, which would make such mining not economically competitive in the foreseeable future.

Here’s another question. “But, Arch Coal currently operates surface mines near one of those permits that Patriot has agreed not to pursue. Couldn’t Arch just use its own infrastructure to surface mine that coal?”

Well, Arch Coal guys know that the coal in question lies in high-selenium rock strata. They know that OVEC, WV Highlands Conservancy and the Sierra Club aren’t going away, and that our fearless and stunningly effective legal team at Appalachian Mountain Advocates isn’t going away either. There is no way Arch could mine that coal without all of us collectively forcing the company to put in many of millions of dollars worth of selenium treatment facilities. And, at least for the foreseeable future, we hope that the extra cost of selenium treatment would make that coal non-competitive with other coal on the market.

I’d also like to correct an error that one media source made in its coverage of the Patriot settlement. This agreement to phase out large scale surface mining does apply to Patriot’s mine in Western Kentucky.

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