SPRUCE VALLEY - Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II rode up muddy roads and through snow-covered trees in Logan County Thursday to see where Arch Coal Inc. wants to put the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history.
Far from his courtroom at the federal courthouse in Charleston, Haden explored two active mountaintop removal jobs and the spot where Arch Coal wants to operate another 3,100-acre mine.
Haden, an avid birdwatcher and angler, quizzed Arch Coal officials about soil conditions, aquatic life, and problems with growing trees on reclaimed mine sites.
The eight-hour tour was marred by snow and fog, which made it difficult to examine the mine site terrain. Muddy road conditions forced visits to active mine pits to be canceled.
"A lot of snow," Haden quipped when asked him what he had seen.
Because of weather conditions, Haden also postponed until this morning a helicopter flyover of mountaintop removal mining operations in Southern West Virginia.
In mountaintop removal mining, explosives are used to blast off the tops of hills. Huge earth-moving equipment moves in and digs out coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt are dumped into nearby streams in waste piles called valley fills.
The on-the-ground tour and flyover were scheduled at the request of Arch Coal lawyers as part of a case which challenges federal and state permits for the company's proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine on Pigeonroost Branch near Blair, Logan County.
The Pigeonroost mine would expand Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining's Dal-Tex complex. The operation would produce about 80 million tons of coal over the next 15 years, according to permit records.
Haden has blocked the mine since Feb. 3, and his temporary restraining order against the operation runs for two more weeks.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exempted the Pigeonroost mine from a new federal policy that subjects mountaintop removal mines to much more scrutiny.
Lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents want the mine to be subjected to the same scrutiny. They also allege a state permit from the Division of Environmental Protection violates stream buffer zone rules, approximate original contour reclamation requirements and other mining regulations.
Haden will hear closing arguments this afternoon at 1:30 on whether to issue a preliminary injunction that will halt the mine for a longer period while he hears more evidence on the issue.
During most of Thursday's tour, Haden was chauffeured around mine sites in a big purple van that Arch Coal officials nicknamed "Barney." An entourage of several dozen lawyers, company officials, plaintiffs and news reporters followed in two other vans.
The judge asked questions, but gave no indication which way he was leaning in the case.
At the 6,500-acre Samples Mine on Cabin Creek in Kanawha County, company general manager Peter Lawson explained to the judge how larger rocks dumped into valley fills fall to the bottom and create a drain system for water to flow through.
"One of the things to point out is the natural segregation by size," Lawson said.
"And that's really just a function of gravity," the judge said.
At the Dal-Tex operation near Monclo, just south of the Boone-Logan county line, Dal-Tex manager Mark White showed off what he said was clean water coming through a discharge pipe out of a finished valley fill into a pond.
"There's fish in there, wildlife?" Haden asked.
"I've never fished it, so I don't know," White responded. "But with the water quality the way it is, it would be a good one to stock."
White also told Haden the valley fill has improved the flow quantity of the stream.
"When they first walked this, when they proposed the valley fill, this was dry; now it's perennial," White said.
Frank Volk, Haden's law clerk, asked White if the valley fill's effect of absorbing rainwater ever backfires.
"Does the sponge ever get saturated sometime in the future?" Volk asked.
"I don't know what you mean by saturated," White replied.
Haden jumped in, "So it becomes unstabled?"
"That's what the designs are for," White said.
Farther south along W.Va. 17 at Spruce Valley, the caravan drove up Pigeonroost Hollow.
The vans passed the home of James and Sibby Weekley, plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the mine.
Pigeonroost Branch flowed through the hollow, past the Weekleys' home.
Biologists for the environmental group and the company debated whether the stream supports an abundance of aquatic life.
When the vans drove by his home, James Weekley came out onto the porch and waved at the judge.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.