International Coal Group said Monday it has settled a lawsuit filed by two environmental groups challenging a federal water quality permit for an Appalachian surface mine.
The deal struck with the Sierra Club and Kentucky Waterways Alliance allows the filling of parts of four valleys with excess rock and other material at its Thunder Ridge mine in eastern Kentucky, Scott Depot-based ICG said.
It also marks a bit of a milestone in the bitter fight over mountaintop removal mining. While highly efficient, the practice is decried by environmental groups as devastating to the environment and Appalachian culture.
Among them is the Sierra Club, which has pushed the President Barack Obama's administration to ban the practice. That hasn't happened yet, though the Environmental Protection Agency is holding up 79 surface and underground mining permits for greater scrutiny and is trying to revoke the permit for one of the region's largest surface mines.
Sierra Club spokesman Oliver Bernstein called the settlement a victory.
"We feel like we achieved the best possible result given the circumstances, and we are pleased that our challenge to the Army Corps permit has led to a reduction in the number of valleys that will be filled with mining waste," Bernstein said in an e-mail. "Today's settlement reinforces the importance of federal action to end mountaintop removal coal mining, the sooner the better."
The corps initially approved five, but later reduced the total by one.
Kentucky Waterways Alliance Executive Director Judy Petersen said the settlement increased protection at the mine and has led the Obama administration to look more closely at valley fills.
"I think we have stopped and/or at the very least delayed a number of valley fills in this state," Petersen said.
ICG already has constructed three of the valley fills and said the agreement allows it to proceed with the fourth. In exchange, ICG agreed to plant an extra 150 acres of hardwood trees on reclaimed land at the mine and donate $50,000 to the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
"We are pleased to have successfully resolved the legal issues," ICG Chief Executive Ben Hatfield said in a statement. "We look forward to continue working with the Corps to improve the process for reviewing and approving permit applications for both surface and deep mining in a timely manner."
Government figures show Thunder Ridge produced just over 700,000 tons of coal in 2008 and employs about 70 people. ICG also has mines or coal reserves in West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Illinois.