Patriot's move away from MTR another sign of coal's decline
By Ken Ward Jr.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- On Thursday, Patriot Coal CEO Ben Hatfield stood up in federal court and announced what once might have seemed unthinkable: A major Appalachian coal producer is phasing out its use of mountaintop removal and all other forms of strip mining.
Hatfield told U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers that mountaintop removal mining impacts coalfield communities "in significant ways," and that Patriot's move "will result in a reduction of our environmental footprint."
But a huge part of the real motivation was financial. Patriot hopes that by refocusing on underground mining and higher-profit steel-making coal it can emerge from bankruptcy, protecting its 4,000 employees and its shareholders' investments.
And in some ways, industry experts say, Patriot's decision is the inevitable result of a narrowing Appalachian coal market, the mining out of quality reserves, and a growing focus on curbing the environmental and public health impacts of large-scale surface mining in the region.