West Virginia mining project moves forward
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The largest mountaintop removal mining project in West Virginia history has been 13 years in the making and along the way involved 50,000 public comments, two U.S. presidents, two government agencies and a federal judge.
The project has been approved, disapproved and -- as of last week -- approved again.
The Arch Coal of St. Louis operation in question, covering 2,278 acres about 50 miles south of Charleston, is moving forward for now after a federal judge in March said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had overstepped its bounds in vetoing a mountain-blasting project the agency said would cause irreparable damage to local ecosystems.
The scope of the project -- and the federal agencies that quickly became involved with it -- drew the controversial extraction and the role of federal environmental protection into sharp relief. Meanwhile, a rural county of 36,000 has awaited the promised jobs and economic development from an operation offering domestic development at a time when the coal industry is seeing tempered demand from foreign clients.
Mountaintop removal mining has taken place in West Virginia for decades. In Appalachia alone, the practice accounts for 11 percent of the total domestic coal production, according to the National Mining Association.
But this project is an especially ambitious undertaking in an industry that usually measures mountaintop removal projects in hundreds of acres, not thousands.
The permit for the record-breaking Arch Coal operation was first granted by the George W. Bush administration and the Army Corps of Engineers in 2007, but the entire permit process for the Spruce Mine started 13 years ago, said Kim Link, spokeswoman for the coal company.
"The Spruce permit is the most scrutinized and fully considered permit in West Virginia's history," she said in an email. Arch Coal legal counsel prefers the company correspond via email.
"The 13-year permitting process included the preparation of a full environmental impact statement, the only permit in the eastern coal fields to ever undergo such review," she said.
Indeed, it's safe to say many eyes have looked at this permit.
The EPA's 2010 evaluation of the Spruce Mine's potential environmental impact found unacceptable damage to the local ecology would occur because of the disposal of 110 million cubic yards of coal mine waste created by the operation.
"The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend," said Peter S. Silva, the EPA's assistant administrator for water.
The Spruce Mine project would bury more than 6 miles of Logan County streams and pollute downstream water with toxic chemicals that turn fresh water into salty water, the agency said. The result: dead fish and wildlife, as well as a more hospitable habitat for toxic algae that could bloom in the waters.
The EPA's rejection was a stunning and unusual move by the federal agency, and it made the Spruce Mine permit only the second in 40 years to be revoked under the Clean Water Act.
It also put a community on hold.
"This is not a little, million-dollar project," said Joseph Raymond, a city executive at the local BB&T bank and vice president of the Logan County Chamber of Commerce. "The fear was that it would be a precedent going forward."
Unusual as it was, the revoking was cheered by critics of the mountaintop removal practice, which involves blasting parts of a mountain off to expose the coal seams that lie underground.
"It is a relief after all of these years that at least one agency has shown the will to follow the law and the science by stopping the destruction of Pigeonroost Hollow and Oldhouse Branch," said Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. Pigeonroost Hollow and Oldhouse Branch are two streams believed to be in the path of the Spruce Mine discharwge.
After a mountaintop removal project, some of the land is restored but discharge goes into nearby valleys, while trees and vegetation have trouble growing back in new soil.
Companies say the process is cheaper and more efficient than underground operations, which require untold manpower to access the coal and put workers in vulnerable positions underground.
The latest twist in the Spruce Mine saga came in mid-March, when a federal judge ruled that revoking the strip mining permit was not only unusual -- it was an illegal overstep by the EPA.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said in her opinion the agency had shown "magical thinking" and had no right to just take away Arch Coal's waste disposal permit.
"Poof!" she wrote.
The EPA hasn't said if it plans to appeal the decision by Judge Berman Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Arch Coal said it's still too early to know a start date for operations. The company expects to invest about $250 million in the operation, which would create about 250 permanent jobs.
Those jobs are much needed in the Logan County region, Mr. Raymond said.
"Our whole economy evolves around moving this black stuff," he said.
Car dealers and other local businesses rely on service from the industry and its workers, he said, and shifts in the global coal market have left Logan and nearby counties reeling from recent layoffs.
Across the industry, depressed demand for coal from countries such as China and India has forced companies to scale back. Mr. Raymond said southern West Virginia counties have seen about 1,000 coal mining positions eliminated in the past few months. Nationwide, nearly 500,000 employees work in the coal industry, according to the National Mining Association.
Mr. Raymond can see the controversial area from his office window. To hear him describe it, the mountaintop removal operations are knitted into the Logan County life.
A four-wheeler trail running more than 500 miles weaves in and out of the mountainous landscape. Local governments have built schools and hotels atop reclaimed hilltops left over from previous mountaintop removal operations, he said. Logan County even has an airport with a 3,500-foot runway sitting atop one flattened hillside.
"It will tear up a mountain," he said. "But you come back and see that it's not a bad-looking site."
First Published April 1, 2012 12:33 pm