By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Continued scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency over the King Coal Highway corridor could have adverse ramifications on future coal synergy agreements, highway supporters said Monday.
Future segments of the four-lane corridor in Mercer, McDowell and Wyoming counties could be constructed with the help of private partner coal companies, who would create a rough grade road bed through the extraction of coal, Tom Hall, president of the King Coal Highway Authority Board of Directors, said.
However, a current coal synergy plan in Mingo County is still being challenged by the EPA.
The EPA is warning that a study of the proposed segment of the King Coal Highway from Delbarton to Belo, and a related surface mine, fails to consider alternatives that reduce the projects’ effects on the environment and health. The EPA is recommending for alternatives to be evaluated that would ensure the least environmental damage, the Associated Press reported.
The Associated Press reports the Buffalo Mountain project in Mingo County would bury more than 7 miles of high quality streams and create a dozen valley fills, the EPA said, noting that the mine is one of the largest surface mines ever proposed in Appalachia.
The agency has given the Mingo County project a EU-3, or environmentally unsatisfactory — inadequate information, ranking.
Hall said future segments of the King Coal Highway in Mercer and McDowell counties could be developed in a similar fashion — but only if permits are not held up by the EPA.
“We are looking, and we’ve had some discussions with an interested party that is looking to mine the very northern end of Mercer County, and leave part of that ridgeline at final grade” Hall said. “And we are talking to someone in McDowell County to mine the ridgetops. And Consol is seeking that permit in Mingo County. But if these permits are delayed for years and years, I think eventually these coal companies are going to lose interest.”
Hall said such public-private partnerships can significantly reduce the cost of building roads. However, if permits for such coal synergy agreements continue to be held up by the EPA, it could have a snowball effect on future public-private partnerships, according to Hall.
“I think it would be a tragedy if this is allowed to happen,” Hall said. “We are hopeful that our senators and our congressman can help us in swaying opinion”
While there isn’t as much coal to mine in Mercer County as there is in McDowell County, Hall said there is still coal that can be removed in the project area — allowing for the creation of a rough grade road bed.
“We are blessed with a lot of coal that is left in the ground,” Hall said. “And if that can be mined economically, and allow the companies to leave the roadway at final grade, we have a highway. And we have developable land out of the flood plain. And we save taxpayers a bunch of money. I don’t see any negatives on this. To me it is incredibly simple. We should issue the permits and let us get to work.”
Marc Meachum, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, said similar coal synergy agreements are being successfully completed in Southwest Virginia.
“I’m not for sure what the difference in the project in West Virginia is based upon what’s been announced for the Coalfields Expressway in Virginia,” Meachum said. “It appears it is the same type of method of getting the road built. Why is there a difference in the environmental impacts of the two? We don’t have as much coal here (in Mercer County) although I understand there is some conversation with the developers at least to help. And more importantly in McDowell County there is coal still being actively mined there, and there are projects like that that are being looked at all of the time, and should be looked at favorably.”
— Contact Charles Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org