Concerns over the environmental and health impacts of surface mining in Raleigh County have resurfaced with an application pending to renew a mining permit there.
Republic Energy LLC has asked state environmental regulators 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.
Republic Energy, a subsidiary of Tennessee-based Alpha Metallurgical Resources, has mostly completed mining operations there and primarily moved on to reclamation operations on the site, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection officials noted during an informal conference held last week to allow public comment on the permit renewal application under the department’s consideration.
The permit was first issued in October 2011, and state surface coal mining permits are valid for five years.
But Vernon Haltom, executive director of Naoma-based nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch, objected to a second renewal of the permit at the conference.
“This permit is just one piece of … a great wound on Coal River Mountain,” Haltom said.
Coal River Mountain Watch opposes mountaintop removal and other mining practices that the group says has harmed the health of area residents.
Haltom 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 is renewed.
Dust from mining has been known to cause cancer.
Laura Claypool, an environmental resources program manager with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Mining and Reclamation, noted during the conference that trees were planted recently on mining areas on the site that have been reclaimed.
But Haltom said that site reclamation efforts haven’t gone far enough.
“We object to renewal of any of these permits,” Haltom said. “The only thing that we would accept or tolerate would be reclamation only. And by reclamation, it would be great to have some restoration and not just spraying some hydroseed on it and planting a field of trees, because that’s really not going to heal this [area] … It’s this rough, green thing. It’s taxidermy. It’s not a living forest.”
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.
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 must make a decision within 30 days of the conference or will have to go through the advertisement and public comment process again, acting department spokesman Terry Fletcher said.
The conference came the same month as the department approved a permit application from Republic Energy LLC last week for a new metallurgical surface mine that would disturb 1,085 acres near the site that the company is seeking to renew its permit for, three miles south of Clear Creek.
Republic Energy 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.
“It’s time to quit renewing these permits, actually reclaim these sites and start thinking about our communities and the impact [mining] has on our communities long-term,” Mullens native and 2020 U.S. Senate Democratic nominee Paula Jean Swearengin said during the conference. “ … I hope when you’re making this decision to renew this permit to make sure that it remains in the reclaim process and they cannot do any more damage to our region.”