MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The Upshur County Board of Education is fighting plans for a new 1,800-acre underground coal mine that would run below Buckhannon-Upshur High School and the proposed site of a new middle school.
School board members are worried about potential subsidence jeopardizing significant financial investments in its facilities and the possibility of explosive methane gas leaking into its buildings.
International Coal Group Inc. and subsidiary Wolf Run Mining Co. are seeking permits for the Hampton Deep Mine in Buckhannon, targeting the 52-inch-thick Middle Kittanning coal seam. ICG's application documents show the company expects the 500- to 600-foot-deep seam to produce about 1 million tons of coal a year for eight years.
ICG spokesman Ross Mazza declined to answer questions about the mine or comment on the dispute with the school board but acknowledged in an email that "discussions are ongoing with legal counsel involved."
Upshur County Superintendent Scott Lampinen, several board members and the board's attorney, Hunter Mullens, all did not respond to telephone and email messages.
In a 22-page objection to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the board said ICG had long promised that its operation would not undermine or otherwise affect the district's facilities.
The board says it learned otherwise through a legal advertisement outlining the mining plan after it had spent $600,000 acquiring 114 acres next to the high school for a new $32 million middle school.
It contends ICG has failed to evaluate the potential for methane seepage from either its own operations or the old workings above the proposed Hampton Mine in the overlying Upper Freeport coal seam.
Subsidence and seepage are "a very real possibility" that the board claimed would at best render the school inoperable and at worst endanger students and staff.
"In fact, it could become a disaster of unprecedented proportions," the board argued. That possibility "should be enough for everyone involved in the process to stop and really assess allowing mining underneath the one area in Upshur County where, in the future, most of Upshur County's children will be on any given weekday."
When the board first objected publicly in March, ICG general counsel Roger Nicholson told a local newspaper that Wolf Run has mined near a school for years without incident.
"We will by definition have to mine under the school," he told The Record Delta of Buckhannon, "but we have designed it so there are no ill effects on the surface."
But subsidence has caused problems for schools before.
Sand Hill Elementary sits about 4 feet lower today than it did before Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy mined under the tiny Marshall County complex last year, said Assistant Superintendent Wayne Simms.
In that case, however, Consol and the board collaborated on a mutually beneficial agreement that allowed the coal company to stick with its mining plan while paying the district for its inconvenience.
Consol provided daily maps showing what panel its crews were mining, Simms said. Knowing what panel the school sat over, officials were able to track Consol's progress. About two weeks before mining reached Sand Hill, they moved the 70 children and their teachers to another facility.
"Blocks could fall out of the ceiling, lights could fall, whatever, and we didn't want to deal with that hassle," Simms said. "We wanted to be sure the kids were safe."
For about six weeks after mining ended, the district waited while the settling continued, watching as walls cracked and doors became stuck.
Consol, which had signed a contract to replace the entire school if it was damaged beyond repair, then hired a contractor to repair everything and the children moved back in.
"We had a really good relationship, a really good understanding," Simms said. "And really good documents."
DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said several permits for the Buckhannon project are pending and a public hearing will be scheduled once the applications are deemed technically complete.
The Hampton Mine would come close to the reserves at ICG's Sago Mine, which was closed after 12 men died after an explosion and prolonged entrapment in January 2006.
But the Buckhannon River stands between the two operations, and DEP senior engineer Clarence Wright said it would remain an impediment to reaching the Sago reserves even at that depth.
Reaching the Sago reserves is not part of ICG's current proposal, he said.
So far, the DEP said, the school board is the only party to object to the project to ICG's plan.
ICG, based in Scott Depot, is the target of a $3.4 billion buyout by St. Louis-based Arch Coal, a deal that's designed to meet growing demand for high-priced coal used to manufacture steel.
Arch didn't immediately comment on the Hampton project.