By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
GRUNDY, Va. —
A national environmental group has ranked the Virginia Coalfields Expressway as one of the “50 Worst Trans-portation Projects in America” due to the coal synergy partnership used to construct the highway.
A recent report published by the Sierra Club graded roadways across the country on criteria including oil use impact, environmental impact, health impact, economic impact, and land use impact. The organization said they chose to rank the Coalfields Expressway as one of their “50 worst” projects because they feel the project is being “built for the express purpose of fossil fuel development” and allows mining companies to operate with minimal permits rather than for regional development.
“The project is expected to cost $2.1 billion, not including the external costs of mountaintop removal, which pollutes ground and surface water, fills valleys, flattens mountains, destroys habitat, and negatively impacts the health of the region’s inhabitants,” the release said. “A recent study has shown that birth defects are almost twice as common in areas subject to mountaintop removal mining. Although the Coalfields Expressway is touted as an economic development activity, the region has little traffic demand, and the road will bypass existing economic centers.”
However, Michelle Earl, a spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the highway project is vital to future economic development across Southwest Virginia.
“The need for improved and safer transportation in the Appalachian region has been recognized for many years,” she said. “In 1995, Congress designated the Coalfields Expressway as a High Priority Corridor in the National Highway System. Congress recognized the need for a new transportation artery to serve not only travelers in Virginia and West Virginia, but also to serve personal and commercial traffic traveling through the entire Appalachian region. The Coalfields Expressway — designated as U.S. Route 121 and a Congressional High Priority Corridor — is a proposed four-lane limited-access highway to provide a modern, safe and efficient transportation artery through the coalfields region of far Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia, a region now served mainly by narrow rural roads. The Coalfields Expressway will transform the region and benefit the entire state.
Earl said the roadway will provide many economic opportunities related to tourism, health care, industrial development and transportation.
“In the short term, the project will create thousands of construction-related jobs, and permanent jobs afterwards,” she said. “In the long term, the new highway will safely and efficiently connect communities in southwestern Virginia to health care, education and employment opportunities. The highway will open the area to tourism and recreation and also will create a new artery for more efficient shipment of cargo and goods through the Appalachian region, thus benefiting the economy from the port of Virginia to the Midwest. Importantly, CFX will improve access to industrial development sites and thus will help the area to diversify its economy, which for generations has been dominated by coal mining, an industry that is in long-term decline. This road ultimately is to facilitate economic development, promote tourism and improve connectivity for movement of cargo and traffic through the region. ”
Additionally, Earl said the highway could see as many as 15,000 vehicles a day by 2035.
“Traffic projections for the Coalfields Expressway range from 4,200 vehicles per day in some areas to about 15,000 vehicles per day in areas where there are connections to other major primary routes, such as Routes 23 and 460,” she said. “To gauge the impact of the Coalfields Expressway, VDOT commissioned a study by independent economics analysis firm Chmura Economics and Analytics. In December 2012 Chmura projected that construction of the Coalfields Expressway would generate immediate and long-term positive economic benefits to citizens and businesses, both in the region and well beyond.”
Earl said the roadway is already having a positive economic impact on the area by providing construction jobs to local counties.
“Chmura said that during the project’s 17-year-construction phase the Coalfields Expressway would create a total of more than 29,000 construction jobs in Wise, Dickenson and Buchanan counties, generating $4.1 billion impact from wages, direct spending and ripple effects,” Earl said. “That works out to more than 1,700 construction jobs per year, with annual economic impact of $241.4 million. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March 2012 that total employment for the three counties was 26,841. In the long term, after the road is completed, the CFX will generate 372 permanent roadside service jobs in the three-county area directly related to the expressway, with an annual economic impact of $41.4 million,” she said. “This projection does not include new jobs elsewhere in the immediate region generated by economic development spurred by the new highway.”
Earl said all of the benefits provided from the highway would not be possible without the coal synergy partnerships that are helping VDOT construct the roadway.
“Coal synergy is an innovative construction method that makes it feasible to finally build the Coalfields Expressway,” Earl said. “The process reduces road building costs substantially by using larger-scale earth moving equipment from coal companies to prepare the road bed to rough grade, and allowing the companies to recover marketable coal reserves during the road bed preparation.
“Coal synergy allows VDOT to align the proposed roadway with our coal partners’ already-existing coal reserves,” she said. “The coal companies like Alpha Natural and Rapoca Energy would mine these reserves without the roadway project and have already applied for some mining permits. Working in conjunction with these companies will save taxpayers an estimated 45 percent of the highway constructions costs by synergizing the two operations. For those portions of the alignment that do not coincide with planned mining operations, the coal companies’ equipment, and specialized techniques also convert to savings for the public.”
State Senator Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, said opponents of the project only need to look to other rural areas to see how highway construction stimulates economic growth. “It’s like the baseball movie, ‘Field of Dreams.’ If you build a road, people will come.”
In addition to commerce, Puckett said the project has also brought much-needed level building sites to the area. “I have fought this battle with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups by pointing out what Buchanan County has been able to do at Poplar Gap,” Puckett said.
“Coal is still a significant engine to this region’s economy,” Puckett said. “It is true that this is still a very poor region, but we’ve made progress in the way coal is mined and the impact coal mining has on the environment. Most of these people who are against coal are against how coal was mined before the reclamation laws of the early 1970s.
“We’re doing a much better job now of mining coal and reclaiming the land,” he said. “We have coal companies like Alpha Natural Resources, Consol and Jewell that are cleaning up the problems of the past, but there is always a battle with environmental groups no matter what you do,” Puckett said.
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org