Since late 1997, when mountaintop removal first made headlines, Arch Coal Inc. officials have argued that they can't make money mining in steep mountain terrain unless their draglines operate full tilt, and unless they are allowed to bury miles of streams. Can Southern West Virginia coal be mined without such extreme measures?At numerous public hearings, mountaintop removal critics asked companies to scale back, to tear down fewer mountains, or not to fill in so many creeks. Industry officials always replied that if mountaintop removal were limited, the Appalachian coal industry would die. Coal seams in Boone and Logan counties are too thin, they said. Competition from larger Wyoming surface mines is too tough, and the global economy too brutal. "If somebody could tell me how to mine this much coal with picks and shovels, I'd be glad to hear it," said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts. "But it can't be done." On March 3, Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II temporarily blocked Arch Coal's plan to open its 3,100-acre Spruce No. 1 Mine, the largest mountaintop removal operation in state history. Haden said he wanted to get to the bottom of arguments that mountaintop removal and valley fills violate federal water pollution and mining rules. The judge scheduled a trial to start July 13. Twice since Haden issued his injunction, hundreds of miners gathered on the state Capitol steps to protest the decision. At one of those rallies, Roberts joined hands with coal industry lobbyists and Gov. Cecil Underwood to show support for full-scale mountaintop removal."The environmental extremists do not want to listen to our ideas for compromises, because their goal is simply to shut down the nation's coal industry," Roberts said. Behind the scenes, something very different was happening. The coal industry was getting scared and starting to back away from its all-or-nothing posture. If Haden continued to rule with environmentalists, all valley fills might be outlawed. Mountaintop removal could be severely cut back or banned. Underground mining might be hurt as well. Deep mines also fill streams when companies dispose of preparation plant waste.Since mid-March, company lawyers have been sitting down to talk with environmentalists to try to find a compromise. Coal operators offered to do more to protect the environment, if they could count on getting a steady flow of new permits. Committed to restarting In secret meetings over the last three months, lawyers on all sides - industry, environmental groups, regulators and the UMW - have negotiated to find an alternative to all-out mountaintop removal. Everyone is looking for a middle ground between giant earth-moving machines operating at peak capacity and miners toting picks and shovels: - A week after Haden ruled that Arch Coal could not open its mine in Logan County, UMW lawyers filed a motion to intervene. The union hired a mining engineer to help find another way to operate the mine. "The UMWA is committed to exploring every possible avenue to resolve this dispute," Roberts said later. - A week after that, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining announced a new mountaintop removal policy: Coal companies could continue to tear down mountains. But they would have to rebuild them, by putting less rock and earth into valley fills and more back onto hilltops. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., a frequent OSM critic, said: "The success of this proposal could also create an environment in which the environmental plaintiffs could find it beneficial to seek a settlement with [the state Division of Environmental Protection] on the outstanding [Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act] issues in their lawsuit." - In mid-April, another mining expert, hired by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, gave Haden a report which describes how coal operators could mine the area and do less damage to hills and streams. "The creative mix of mining methods and maximizing the use of excess spoil disposal areas could create a radically different mine plan," the engineer's report said. - Also in mid-April, Arch Coal filed a request for an "individual" valley fill permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its new mine. Previously, Arch Coal wanted the mine authorized under a "nationwide permit." Under the nationwide permit, Arch Coal would promise to follow a set of mining conditions. Regulators would not review the specifics. If Arch Coal applied for an individual permit, regulators would go through the application closely. They might make the company reduce the size of the mine. The permit could take much longer to get. Today leaders on both sides say a settlement before the July 13 trial is possible - perhaps not likely, but at least possible. "I think there is a way to get to that point," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "They're going through long meetings and pretty good meetings," Raney said late last week. "I understand things are going pretty well." In a recent interview, Arch Coal Executive Vice President Ken Woodring said, "We're certainly anxious to come up with a solution, and we'll do everything we can to get to that point." In court papers, lawyers for DEP Director Michael Miano said they are taking steps to make sure future mining permits comply with the law and minimize environmental damage. "When all is said and done, plaintiffs' attacks on the state's processes, designed to halt permitting and mining, have been or will be substantially negated," DEP lawyers told Haden in late May. "Improvements in mining methods have been suggested," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "Whether or not they are enough, and will resolve all of the issues that are out there regarding impacts to the environment and the communities, I don't know." The future of Pigeonroost Pigeonroost Hollow is a narrow, tree-lined valley near Blair Mountain in Logan County. If Haden hadn't issued his injunction, Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining would already have expanded its huge Dal-Tex mountaintop removal mine into the hollow. Explosives would blast hilltops into rubble. Smaller electric shovels and dozers would already be removing the first layer of rubble, down to the first coal seam. Coal from that seam would be mined and trucked away. Dozers would level a flat plain, where the dragline can sit. A dragline is a huge, cranelike earth-moving machine, sometimes 20 stories tall and weighing 4,000 tons. Its shovel-bucket digs 75 cubic yards or more in one bite. The dragline would scoop out the rest of the rock and earth. A dozen coal seams would be dug out along the way. Much of the rubble would be dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams beneath valley fills. Nearly 5 square miles of rugged Logan County hills would have been stripped. More than 4 miles of streams would be buried with enough rock and earth to fill 28 million railroad cars. Valley fills would cover 1 2/3 miles of Pigeonroost Branch, and 1 mile each of White Oak Branch, Old House Branch and the Right Fork of Seng Camp Creek. Over the next 15 years, Hobet Mining would haul 80 million tons of coal, worth about $2 billion, out of Pigeonroost Hollow. When he issued his injunction, Haden ruled the mining would do "permanent and irreversible" damage to Pigeonroost Hollow. "If the forest canopy of Pigeonroost Hollow is leveled, exposing the stream to extreme temperatures, and aquatic life is destroyed, these harms cannot be undone," Haden wrote in a 47-page opinion. "If the forest wildlife are driven away by the blasting, noise, and the lack of safe nesting and eating areas, they cannot be coaxed back." 'State of the art' mining In July 1998, when the Highlands Conservancy filed a lawsuit to curb mountaintop removal, the group's lawyers hired John Morgan to be their expert witness. A British citizen and graduate of the London School of Mines, Morgan now operates his consulting firm, Morgan Worldwide Mining Consultants Inc., out of Lexington, Ky. Over the last 20 years, Morgan has traveled all over the world to design mines: gold mines in Indonesia, granite mines in the Ukraine, diamond mines in Arkansas. But Morgan doesn't like what Hobet Mining proposed to do to Pigeonroost Branch. In a November 1998 report to Haden, Morgan concluded, "The approach utilized by Hobet does not reflect the 'state of the art' of the industry." Since he wrote that, Morgan has reviewed other West Virginia mountaintop removal proposals. He's convinced it can be done better. Mining companies can produce almost as much coal and make almost as much money. At the same time, they can tear down fewer mountains and bury fewer streams, Morgan says. "Simply reverting to the mantra that its design is the best and allows for the maximum coal extraction negates the ability to review alternatives," Morgan said in an April report filed with the U.S. District Court in Charleston. "An alternate design might now be optimum for Hobet, but it would comply with legal and regulatory requirements and still allow for profitable mining." According to his report, Morgan thinks mountaintop removal in West Virginia has gotten out of hand. Here's why: Operators use much larger equipment. In the early 1980s, 85-ton trucks were the largest used in West Virginia mining. Back then, strip mines and valley fills were much smaller. Generally, fills contained less than 250,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt. Today, mountaintop removal mines use 240-ton trucks. Valley fills sometimes measure 100 million cubic yards or more. Larger equipment isn't very mobile, and it costs a lot to move. Companies want to permit contiguous mines, so equipment can move easily from one site to the next. Operators also concentrate several groups of large equipment (a large shovel with a fleet of trucks, with a loader and a fleet of trucks, for example) together on one mining complex. These complexes must be very large so the groups of equipment have their own operating areas and don't interfere with each other. "In summary, the trend to larger equipment will result in the demand for larger permits," Morgan wrote in his report. Driving the dragline At most mountaintop removal mines in Southern West Virginia, draglines drive everything. Draglines cost $25 million or more. They must be transported in parts, and take years to assemble. Once a company brings in a dragline, they want to make the most of their investment. They run the dragline 24 hours a day, every day, at full capacity. Mine trucks and shovels are chosen based on whether they work well with the dragline. Production schedules are designed to the dragline's capacity. Draglines are huge. Some have circular bases that are 60 feet or more in diameter. Because they are so big, draglines need wide, flat areas - often 120 feet or more - to sit on to operate at full speed. So companies cut off huge slices of mountains to create those flat areas These cuts, known as pre-stripping, create huge amounts of leftover rock and dirt. Companies need somewhere to put this material. That's one major reason they build bigger valley fills. This means draglines end up operating far behind pre-strip equipment. Large areas of the mine are left disturbed for months as the dragline catches up to the pre-stripping. "The separation of the mining operation into pre-stripping and dragline tasks increases the overall footprint of the active mining area," Morgan said in his report. "This additional area makes operation easier, but is not critical for the operation of the equipment." Morgan suggests companies reduce the size of the pre-strip cuts and work draglines and pre-strip equipment closer together. This is called contemporaneous reclamation. Under this practice, operators reclaim mines as they go, rather than leaving larger amounts of disturbed area between the pre-stripping and dragline operations. Proper contemporaneous reclamation minimizes dust and erosion and reduces the potential reclamation costs if an operator goes belly up. It also limits the size of valley fills. In his report, Morgan says contemporaneous reclamation is like laying pipe: First, assume that pipe is only available in 10-yard pieces. To lay this pipe, you would dig a 10-yard-long trench, and place the dirt from it at one end of the trench. Then you would lay the pipe in the trench and dig another 10-yard hole at the other end of the first trench. The dirt from the second trench would be used to cover the pipe in the first trench. In this example, a total of 20 yards would be dug up at any one time (10 yards from each of the two trenches). Also, you would be left with nowhere to put the 10 yards of dirt from the first trench. (The second trench would be filled with dirt from the third trench, and so on.) If this were a mountaintop removal mine, that leftover dirt from the first trench would be the material from the first pre-strip cut. It would have to be dumped into a valley fill. But if you could use 5-yard-long pieces of pipe, only 10 yards of land would be disturbed at any one time (5 yards each from two trenches). And the amount of leftover dirt you would have nowhere to put would be cut in half, to 5 yards. "The same principal applies to surface mining," Morgan wrote. "A smaller mining area will decrease the overall disturbed area. More importantly, it will decrease the amount of material placed in excess spoil disposal areas." The long haul Under federal law, strip mines must generally be restored to their "approximate original contour." Unless they plan to develop flattened land, companies are supposed to rebuild the mountains they tear down. In West Virginia, this hasn't happened. Companies have removed mountains and flattened land, but never developed factories, schools or subdivisions. At the same time, because companies didn't have to rebuild mountains, they simply dumped the rock and dirt into streams. "Historically, the mining companies have tried to reduce the elevation of the overburden backfilled on the mined-out area because this reduces their mining costs," Morgan wrote in his report. "The costs are increased as the distance that the material has to be hauled increases," he wrote. "Costs are also increased if the trucks have to haul uphill to place the excavated overburden on the upper portions of the backfill. It is cheapest to haul short and level." In mid-March, DEP and OSM announced a plan that could fix this problem. Under the plan, coal operators will have to pile most of the rock and earth they blast or dig up back onto the hilltops they mine. The only material that could be dumped into valley fills would be that which can't be placed back on hilltops because of rules on stability, drainage or sediment control, and access to and maintenance of mined areas. In his report, Morgan found that if Hobet Mining had to follow the new OSM guidelines, it "could and should have maximized the backfill" and proposed smaller valley fills. Recently, OSM inspectors applied the new guidelines to two other mountaintop removal applications filed with the state. In each case, they found that, by complying with the guidelines, operators could rebuild more of the mountains and dump less waste into streams. "It appears the fill volume could be significantly reduced," an internal OSM study reports. Morgan also found that most valley fills in West Virginia are built from the top down. Trucks dump rock and dirt over hillsides, and gravity carries the material into the fill. Industry engineers praise this approach. For one thing, it's cheaper. Trucks don't have to go as far. Dozers aren't needed to move material around at the bottom of the fill. For another, gravity automatically sends larger rocks falling to the bottom, creating a rock underdrain for the fill. But this method also makes fills bigger. Rocks and dirt don't always compact as much as they could. Fills are not stacked as high as they could be because it costs more to truck uphill. In his report, Morgan suggests that fills could be smaller if they were built from the bottom up. "The environmental effects of end-dump durable rock fills can be reduced if the fill is placed in a controlled manner by hauling with trucks plus leveling and compaction with a dozer," Morgan wrote. He also suggests that fills could be stacked higher. "This increase in elevation will result in the decrease in the length of the fill and a decrease in the amount of stream buried." Morgan concluded: "Mine planning seldom has been a blank canvas on which to work, and historically the development of mining operations has adjusted to the conditions in which it wants to operate. "The solution is creative thinking and acknowledgment that environmental and regulatory constraints are a critical component of mine design." Since he filed his report two months ago, Morgan has tried to convince the West Virginia coal industry that he's right. Some of them are starting to come around, at least a little. "I think he's got some good ideas," said Raney of the Coal Association. "We can talk this thing out." Arch Coal's Woodring said, "We've had a lot of discussions, and we've exchanged a lot of information. "Right now, we're getting some input from those discussions but can't really say right now whether we are learning anything of any value." Rank said that even if a settlement is reached, government regulators need to do more to scrutinize the effects of mountaintop removal. "There are ongoing discussions," Rank said. "The engineering proposals would minimize the effects of removing the same amounts of coal by the same methods. "There's something between the pick and shovel and removing every ounce of coal that's out there," Rank said. "I'm not sure we're really in the process of looking at these alternatives the way an environmental impact study or the permit process should. "Does the law dictate the permits, or does the technology and the will of industry dictate what the regulations will say? The laws are there, but with little will by agencies to enforce them, citizens have to go to court and get some judge to enforce the laws."