Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, called the agreement a historic moment in the fight against what he called an "abhorrent" form of mining.
"Patriot Coal may be the first company to cease mountaintop removal mining, but because of the tireless efforts of committed volunteers and community organizations, it certainly won't be the last," he said.
But word of the deal concerned the United Mine Workers of America, even though it appears there will be no immediate job losses. The union is battling Patriot to maintain pension and health care benefits for retirees as the company reorganizes.
"Coal mining has always been an occupation of continuous change, whether it's technological change, changes in mining methods, changes in markets, or changes in regulations," President Cecil Roberts said. "Companies have always made strategic decisions based on those changes and workers are left to live with the consequences. That is what has happened here."
People who live near the operations complain about not only property damage but also health problems they believe are related to the dust and water pollution the operations create. Whether the practice should continue has been the source of intense conflict in West Virginia, where surface miners depend on it for their livelihoods.
The agreement caps the amount of coal that Patriot can mine from surface operations at 6.5 million tons in 2014, falling to 5 million tons in 2017. By January 2018, the amount is limited to no more than 3 million tons a year.