A federal judge agreed Tuesday to an earlier trial date in a landmark case over mountaintop removal coal mining.Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden moved the trial to July 13. It had been scheduled to start Sept. 9.Haden ruled at the request of Arch Coal Inc., and in the face of mounting protests from the United Mine Workers and the coal industry.The judge also received an unusual request for the expedited trial from Gov. Cecil Underwood, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, according to court records unsealed Tuesday.In a 10-page order, Haden also allowed the UMW to intervene in the case.On March 3, Haden issued a preliminary injunction that halted permits for Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining to expand its Dal-Tex mountaintop removal mine near Spruce Fork, Logan County. The company asked for an expedited trial, arguing it was losing $1 million a month without the new permits."In an effort to diminish the harm to Hobet, and recognizing the public's interest in a timely final resolution of the case, the court will expedite the trial of the entire case," Haden wrote in Tuesday's ruling.
Lawyers for Hobet wanted Haden to hold a trial on the Dal-Tex permit separate from a larger case over an alleged "pattern and practice" by regulators of issuing permits that violate environmental laws. The judge declined that request."Many of the same witnesses will testify regarding the alleged instances of the pattern and practice, including those involving the Spruce Fork permit," Haden wrote. "It would be unnecessarily repetitive and ultimately would delay the final resolution of the case to have a separate trial on the Spruce Fork permit."Terry O'Connor, a spokesman for St. Louis-based Arch Coal, offered a mixed reaction to the ruling."We are pleased the judge has found time on his calendar to be able to accommodate an earlier trial date," O'Connor said. "But this decision does not change Arch's plans to continue with the closure of the Dal-Tex mine and the decommissioning of equipment there, as previously announced."
After Haden's March 3 ruling, Arch CEO Steven Leer said the company would close the Dal-Tex mine, and lay off most of its 400 workers, by August.On the issue of the UMW, Haden noted that union lawyers said their position is "to protect both jobs and communities so that when the coal mining is over, what remains has been disturbed as little as possible and the community remains intact.""Consequently, the UMWA may espouse a legal position different from, and adverse to, the positions taken by the current defendants, including Hobet," Haden wrote.Haden added that he would "scrutinize any effort by the UMWA to broaden the scope of the case in order to further the UMWA's particular interests."
"The court recognizes the importance of reaching a trial on the merits of the instant case as soon as possible, without sacrificing attention to proper factual discovery," the judge wrote. "The court will not allow any party to derail the case."Along with his Tuesday ruling, Haden opened to the public two case documents he had sealed last week.One document was an order sealing the letter from Underwood, Tomblin and Kiss. The other was the two-page letter from the three elected officials. Haden said he had initially sealed the documents because they were sent to him marked "Personal and Confidential." He unsealed them when no one proved to him they should be kept secret.In the letter, Underwood, Tomblin and Kiss asked Haden to expedite the trial."More than 18,000 West Virginians work in mining operations and 51,000 work directly and indirectly in mining," the letter said. "This important segment of our population depends upon wages and benefits from their jobs to provide for their families."In 1997, coal operations generated $180 million in coal severance taxes to state and local governments," it said. "West Virginians who work in mining ultimately purchase goods and services from local merchants and business operators. In turn, they pay taxes to fund education and donate to churches and community organizations.
"Over the last two weeks, mining job layoffs have been announced and some have in fact occurred. It is our collective understanding that layoffs will continue along with the ceasing of mining operations in at least one location by Miner's Vacation Day in July 1999," the letter said."These developments and prospects are of critical importance to West Virginians as well as state and local economies and, in our view, warrant expedited consideration and adjudication of the issues presented," it said. "In making this request, we truly appreciate the challenges you face as we have struggled with these issues for the past year." To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.