Coal company announcement renews debate over M.T.R.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (WYMT) - A coal company plans to phase out mountaintop removal at its operations in western Kentucky. Bankrupt Patriot Coal Company made the announcement Thursday. While environmental groups are calling the move a sign of things to come, experts in the coal industry say business will continue as normal.

The agreement will allow the St. Louis-based company to postpone as much as $27 million in expenses from 2014 and beyond, in the hopes that it will be able to emerge from Chapter 11 protection as a viable business. We talked to several organizations today to find out what kind of impact this is likely to have on coal mining in Eastern Kentucky.

Bankrupt Patriot Coal Company agreed Thursday to phase out and eventually cease all large-scale mountaintop removal mining in central Appalachia, a move one expert says does not come as a surprise.

"They've made this decision based on their business plan, based on what seems to be more of a focus in metallurgical coal, which has a higher margin, a higher price as we all know for met coal that's used to make steel," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

Mountaintop removal, or M.T.R. mining remains a hot button issue for many in the Commonwealth, and Thursday's announcement by Patriot Coal has brought new attention to the debate. Environmental groups point to studies that suggest M.T.R. adversely affects land and water quality.

"And you know people need water to live, and it's a shame that people have to be in a position to choose between their jobs and their health," said Lane Boldman with the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Others say underground mining is a better alternative to M.T.R. and strip mining.

"I'm a hundred percent for underground coal mining, but you know I'd like to see surface mining stopped altogether," said Stanley Sturgill with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

But coal advocates say the Eastern Kentucky coal industry relies too heavily on surface mining to abandon it any time soon.

"It's important to remember again that they are in the western Kentucky coal field, and there, only 15 percent of our coal mining is from surface methods, where in Eastern Kentucky, half the coal - 50 percent - is from surface mining," said Bissett.

Bissett says ultimately, M.T.R. will remain an integral part of coal mining in Kentucky, one that he says can be performed in a safe and environmentally responsible way.

The announcement by Patriot will only affect mining operations in western Kentucky, and no layoffs are expected.

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