West Virginia environmental regulators have approved renewal of a permit for surface mining in Raleigh County despite concerns over the environmental and health affects of surface mining operations there.
Republic Energy LLC had asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to renew a permit for a steep-slope mining operation south of Clear Creek, in the Clear Fork district of Raleigh County, that opponents say would continue damaging the health of nearby residents and the mountains around them.
Department of Environmental Protection environmental resources program manager Laura Claypool said Monday the department approved the application Friday after finding it met state mining and reclamation requirements.
Republic Energy, a subsidiary of Tennessee-based Alpha Metallurgical Resources, has mostly completed mining operations on the site and primarily moved on to reclamation operations there, Department of Environmental Protection officials noted during an informal conference held last month to allow public comment on the permit renewal application under the department’s consideration.
But Coal River Mountain Watch, a group that opposes mountaintop removal and other mining practices the group says have harmed the health of area residents, condemned the permit renewal Monday, objecting that the permit renewal for the site would aid coal transport for active mining operations adjacent to it.
The group has argued that blasts from Republic Energy surface mining operations in the area have dispersed carcinogenic silica dust into the air that neighbors breathe a minimum of 2 miles downwind, fearing further blasting if the permit was renewed.
Dust from mining has been known to cause cancer.
Junior Walk, 31, 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, said extensive mining activity has ravaged the Coal River watershed over the course of his lifetime.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the DEP has approved this permit for the continued destruction and exploitation of the vast natural wealth we are lucky enough to have here in West Virginia,” Walk said. “They have a proven track record of rubber-stamping anything the coal company puts in front of them.”
Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, has said reclamation efforts on the site haven’t gone far enough.
“Morticians do a better job reclaiming the dead than Alpha does reclaiming mountaintop removal sites,” Haltom said. “This area will never again produce ginseng or the vast diversity of life that has been obliterated here.”
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 say those operations have resulted in residents having to breathe in dust from the blasts and live with coal waste-contaminated well water.
Alpha Metallurgical Resources could not be reached for comment. The company previously said it operates “with a commitment to the protection of the environment and the surrounding communities” at Republic Energy and all its properties.
The Department of Environmental Protection issued Republic Energy notices of violation for the site covered by the permit in December 2015 for failing to notify residents of its blasting schedule, and in February 2018 for not providing adequate protection on a slope at the outlet ends of culvert pipes, resulting in erosion of a haul road used by mining trucks for bulk transfer of materials. Republic Energy reseeded the area, according to department records.
The permit was first issued in October 2011, and state surface coal mining permits are valid for five years.
The Department of Environmental Protection approved a permit application from Republic Energy last month for a new metallurgical surface mine that would disturb 1,085 acres near the site that the company was seeking to renew its permit for, 3 miles south of Clear Creek.
Republic Energy said it intends to move 245 million cubic yards of earth to mine 11.2 million tons of coal over eight years on the new site, which parent company Alpha Metallurgical Resources previously said is expected to provide employment opportunities for more than 100 local coal miners.
Alpha Metallurgical Resources has 15 active mine facilities across West Virginia, consisting of five surface and 10 underground mines.
In November, Walk recorded drone videos appearing to show moving dust clouds the group says were produced by blasts from Republic Energy’s Middle Ridge surface mining operation.
Haltom submitted a complaint to the Department of Environmental Protection’s 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 2 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 would 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.
But Walk said he doesn’t trust state environmental regulators to protect the Coal River watershed, and sees their approval of Republic Energy’s request to renew a surface mining permit there as the latest reason why.
“It’s just disheartening for me to think that after all these years there isn’t a single soul at DEP who has the backbone to stand up for what’s right for our people here,” Walk said.