Mountaintop-removal mining (MTR) is a devastating method of coal extraction, literally blowing apart hilltops to make it easier to access smaller, hard-to-reach seams. The detritus from the explosions isn’t all captured, and is one of the reasons a recent report suggested that MTR polluted one-fifth of streams in a section of southern West Virginia.

Today, one coal company made a dramatic announcement about the practice. From The Charleston Gazette:

Patriot Coal has agreed to phase out mountaintop removal and other forms of strip mining in a move Patriot officials say is in the best interests of the company and the communities where it operates.

In a deal with citizen groups, Patriot said it would never seek new permits for large-scale surface mining operations, according to details of the settlement revealed during a federal court hearing here this afternoon. …

“Patriot Coal recognizes that our mining operations impact the communities in which we operate in significant ways, and we are committed to maximizing the benefits of this agreement for our stakeholders, including our employees and neighbors,” [Patriot President Ben] Hatfield told U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers. “We believe the proposed settlement will result in a reduction of our environmental footprint.”

Earlier this year, Patriot filed for bankruptcy, one possible reason that the company was eager to settle this dispute — which stemmed from occurrences of selenium pollution — on terms that it might have found unacceptable in the past.

But for coal companies not in the same place, the Patriot agreement could put an enormous amount of pressure on them to similarly curtail behavior that a peer deemed environmentally damaging.

Update: The Sierra Club’s Mary Anne Hitt has a look at some of the further implications of the announcement.