West Virginia environmental regulators have given their blessing for plans to move forward for a surface mine in Raleigh County that has renewed concerns about health and geological impacts from steep slope mining in the area.
The state Department of Environmental Protection approved a permit application from Republic Energy LLC last week for a metallurgical surface mine that would disturb 1,085 acres three miles south of Clear Creek.
The subsidiary of Tennessee-based Alpha Metallurgical Resources, which changed its name from Contura Energy in February, intends to move 245 million cubic yards of earth to mine 11.2 million tons of coal over eight years.
The operation is expected to provide employment opportunities for more than 100 local coal miners.
“Alpha is pleased to receive permit approval for this project and we look forward to expanding our safe, responsible operations for many years to come,” the company wrote in an email Wednesday.
But those familiar with past steep-slope mining and blasting with explosives to break up rocks overlying coal and expose coal reserves conducted by Alpha and other companies in the area condemned the Department of Environmental Protection’s permit approval. They say it will invite more health problems for residents having to breathe in dust from the blasts and live with coal waste-contaminated well water.
“It’s terribly abstract for those folks at [the] DEP whose job it is to sign a piece of paper and never look into the faces of their victims,” Vernon Haltom, executive director of Naoma-based nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch, wrote in an email.
Coal River Mountain Watch opposes mountaintop removal and other mining practices that have impacted public health and natural resources.
Dust from mining has been known to cause cancer.
Chuck Nelson, 65, of Glen Daniel, was a fourth-generation coal miner whose wife Linda died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2019, two decades after he says they found coal dust in their refrigerator when they lived near the Elk Run coal preparation plant in Sylvester in neighboring Boone County.
Today, Nelson is recovering from a stroke he suffered three weeks ago, has one functioning kidney and has had stents put in his arteries. He also has deep concerns about surface mine pollution contaminating nearby rivers and tributaries that provide residents drinking water and dust settling into their lungs, which he says has caused elevated cancer incidence and birth defects impacting his friends around surface mining operations.
“These coal companies think that there’s no limit to what they can do,” Nelson said. “… That’s the way the industry looks at this. There’s no limit to what they can do to a person, and I’m tired of it.”
Junior Walk, an outreach coordinator for Coal River Mountain Watch who grew up in Eunice in Raleigh County and now lives in Whitesville across the Boone County line, turns 31 Friday and says that extensive mining activity has ravaged the Coal River watershed over the course of his lifetime. Walk is bracing for Republic Energy’s proposed surface mine to knock down a ridge line a few hundred feet and inject harmful soot into nearby communities.
“Those sorts of environmental impacts will continue, sad to say,” said Walk, who in November recorded drone videos appearing to show moving dust clouds that the group says were produced by blasts from Republic Energy’s Middle Ridge surface mining operation.
Mining is slated to start on the mountain between the Workman Creek and Stover Fork drainages of Clear Fork and continue south to the Wingrove Branch drainage of Sandlick Creek. Republic Energy’s plan proposes a combination of area mining, multi-seam contour mining, high-wall mining and auger mining into steep slopes.
Haltom submitted a complaint to the Department of Environmental Protection Division of Mining and Reclamation that month saying a blast shook ground between Workman Creek and McDowell Branch, and that dust from the blast traveled more than two miles.
But a department inspector who investigated Haltom’s complaint could not validate the dust cloud in the video was caused by blasting at the Middle Ridge site, or that the dust cloud traveled that distance.
The department’s report on Haltom’s complaint says smoke bombs, flags and/or a weather station will be used to determine wind direction to Workman Creek and McDowell Branch prior to blasting in an effort to maintain compliance for “fugitive dust control” in the community.
Department officials say that Republic Energy’s application met the state’s surface mining control and reclamation requirements, obligating them to issue the permit.
“At Republic and all our properties, Alpha operates with a commitment to the protection of the environment and the surrounding communities,” Alpha said. “We work closely with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and strive to achieve full compliance with all environmental laws, rules and regulations that govern coal mining.”
Alpha has five surface mining and 10 underground mining complexes in West Virginia.
Republic Energy’s permit for the Raleigh County surface mine proposes blasting, but not within 1,000 feet of any building used as a dwelling, public building, school or church.
The Division of Mining and Reclamation had approved 56 of the 69 surface mine applications it has received from the beginning of 2018 to March 20, according to Terry Fletcher, the DEP’s acting communications director.
“It’s hard to get anything done on a state level when you know you’ve got a coal operator sitting in there as governor and a coal operator sitting there running the Department of Environmental Protection,” Nelson said, referring to Gov. Jim Justice, a coal magnate, and former DEP Secretary Austin Caperton, who was a coal company executive earlier in his career before Justice appointed him to head the department.
A West Virginia University study published in 2011 found significantly higher prevalence rates of birth defects in mountaintop mining areas compared to other mining areas and non-mining areas after examining more than 1.8 million birth records in West Virginia and surrounding states in central Appalachia. The study found that birth defects were 42% higher in mountaintop mining areas from 2000 to 2003.
“I draw a line when they start impacting my community, my friends and my people,” Nelson said. “That’s where I draw the line.”