Court hearings on the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history will end Friday, a federal judge said Tuesday.Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II will conduct a tour and flyover of mountaintop removal operations on Thursday and hear closing arguments in the case Friday morning.Haden entered an order Tuesday spelling out some of the ground rules for the flyover and tour. The order also scheduled closing arguments in the case for 9 a.m. Friday.The judge could rule in the case on Friday, or wait until the expiration of a temporary restraining order that runs at least through March 5.Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc. wants to strip 3,100 acres along Pigeonroost Branch near Blair, Logan County.Haden has blocked state and federal permits for the operation since Feb. 3. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents sued the state Division of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to try to halt the mine.
Federal regulators exempted the Pigeonroost mine from a new policy that will subject mountaintop removal permits to much more regulatory scrutiny. Environmental group lawyers say it should not have been exempted.Last week, Haden said he would extend his temporary restraining order for an additional 20 days, which would have it run through March 15.In an order filed Tuesday, Haden said the restraining order would be extended through March 5 "or the maximum period permitted" under federal court rules.The Tuesday order said that media would be allowed to attend the mine tour, but would have to provide their own transportation. Media wishing to attend were told to gather at Southridge Centre at 7:30 a.m. Thursday.Lawyers involved in the case said the tour would include the Arch Coal Samples Mine on Cabin Creek, the Dal-Tex operation near Blair, and the proposed mine site at Pigeonroost Branch. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.