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Patriot Agrees To End Mountaintop Removal Mining

Yesterday, one of the nation’s top coal companies, Patriot Coal, announced that it is getting out of the business of mountaintop removal mining. The decision comes out of a settlement with several Appalachian community groupsWest Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates—requiring Patriot to clean up toxic selenium pollution running off into streams and rivers from two mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia.

This news marks the beginning of the end of mountaintop removal mining. This is the first time a coal company is publicly acknowledging community impacts of this destructive and extreme form of mining. Now, it's up to all of us to finish the job and demand that our nation's leaders in the White House and in Congress end mountaintop removal before coal companies do more damage. They shouldn't be left to their own timelines: We need to work to end this sooner.

Citing pollution clean-up costs estimated at $400 million, community and environmental impacts and other business risks, Patriot says it has decided that large-scale surface mining in Appalachia is not a sustainable business model. Investors nationwide should take note and end their support of this risky business.

During a court hearing today with several West Virginia groups, Patriot issued the following statement:

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.

Polluted Cabin Creek in West Virginia.
(Mark Schmerling)

Patriot’s statement shows that the nation’s second largest coal company sees the writing on the wall: Mountaintop removal coal mining is severely harming people, and the environment, and it should end. The costs for Appalachian communities are simply too high, both morally and financially for these companies. It’s time for investors to follow through and start putting funds in clean energy industries like renewables, that could create 52,000 new jobs in the four Appalachian states alone, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Serious community health impacts have been illuminated through 22 peer-reviewed scientific studies over the last several years. These studies show significantly higher mortality rates, life-threatening disease and cancer rates, and birth defect rates in the areas closest to mountaintop removal mining, and that’s added on top of all of the devastating environmental harm caused.

Companies like Patriot have gotten away with strapping those costs on the backs of the largely impoverished and powerless communities in Appalachia for too long, but today’s news shows that once coal companies are held accountable to the law and are required to pay even a fraction of the cost to clean up the devastation they have created, mountaintop removal mining is no longer profitable for them. And it shows that communities do have the power to save their communities and hold bad corporate actors accountable for their damage. Tremendous credit goes to the dogged and tireless work of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the Sierra Club for fighting in the courts for Patriot to clean up its selenium pollution.

It’s fair to assume that Patriot would most likely be continuing this practice of externalizing the costs on the communities, as all the other coal companies are, if it weren’t for its bankruptcy and financial need to rethink its business models. Despite what the coal industry claims in its billion dollar advertising campaign, the bankruptcy and struggling financial shape of these coal companies are caused by competition from cheaper natural gas, warmer winters, and dwindling accessible coal supplies in the region – not by President Obama’s regulations. This is an indisputable fact that the coal industry recognizes with its shareholders, but when it comes to public messages, it’s nowhere to be seen in the industry’s heated and untruthful rhetoric. So it’s a welcome change to see such an honest admission coming from a coal company today.

In fact, the Obama Administration has issued only guidance that aims to ensure compliance with basic requirements of the Clean Water Act and other existing laws, but has not created any new regulations that address mountaintop removal mining. It’s also important to note that the particular regulation on selenium, which is the subject of the Patriot settlement and is costing Patriot $400 million in clean up costs, is a state of West Virginia limit, not a federal limit, and it predates the Obama administration. Now, it’s common knowledge that the state government of West Virginia is a friend of coal, so if you manage to rack up this much in pollution damages in this particular state, you have to be doing something extra wrong.

This is the first time a coal company is publicly acknowledging community impacts of this destructive and extreme form of mining. (OVEC)

Patriot’s announcement today affirms what we’ve always known: Being a bad neighbor is a bad business plan. We must call on our nation’s leaders to face the reality that the end of this destructive mining practice is upon us, and to lead Appalachian communities toward clean, sustainable jobs. Our nation’s leaders can either resist this inevitable change, or they can work swiftly to build a better future for the American people.

Following this company’s acknowledgement of mountaintop removal’s harms, members of the House have a responsibility to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, and the President should sign this bill into law without delay.

If a coal company can be honest and admit its past failures and take a positive step to try to do differently in the future, members of Congress have no excuse not to do the same, said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) yesterday in a statement released by the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act campaign:

This agreement is a clear admission of the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and a key victory for the Appalachian community... 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.

Congress must come together to protect the people of Appalachia and pass this bill immediately. And President Obama, too, must not waste any time in stopping the hemorrhaging of mountaintop removal mining. He must enact policies immediately to put an end to this destruction and health threat.

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