Coal companies pursue drawn-out leasing process in Kentucky

The U.S. Forest Service is in the environmental review process on several applications by coal companies to lease coal reserves for underground mining within the Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky.

Coal leasing is allowed within national forests, but only underground mining is allowed in these areas in order to minimize surface impacts.

In one case, a coal lease application was filed in November 2005 with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which handles coal leasing for the Forest Service, by Bledsoe Coal Leasing Co. The lease application area encompasses approximately 174 acres. The lease is part of a larger reserve of an underground mine and its associated infrastructure. The block of coal proposed for leasing is bounded on the east, west and north by current mine reserves held by Bledsoe Coal Corp. Bledsoe Coal is a unit of James River Coal (NASDAQ: JRCC).

The Forest Service tract associated with the proposed Bledsoe lease action is located on Beech Fork, Fern Branch and Cawood Creek drainages in southern Leslie County. The area is approximately 20 miles south of Hyden, the county seat of Leslie County.

The seam proposed for mining through the proposed coal lease consists of several seam splits, with two of these splits considered to be primary, said a January “scoping” document from the Forest Service. The lower split is the Fireclay seam, locally known as the Hazard #4. The upper split is the Hazard #4A. Throughout the lease area, the two splits are separated by a layer of rock or middleman of varying thickness. Though the splits are distinct, the coal proposed for leasing is referred to collectively as the Fireclay seam. Based on available information, the aerial extent of the underground workings in the proposed federal lease would total approximately 174 acres, and the estimated mineable thickness of coal is 36 inches. Based on this, the Forest Service estimates 910,159 mineable tons of coal in place. This would be a room-and-pillar mining operation.

Another pending lease application is for the Southfork lease in Whitley and McCreary counties. A February 2009 scoping report said the application was by Southfork Coal Co. and was filed in May 2001. The application area encompasses 64.5 acres. Southfork plans to mine the Jellico coal seam with room-and-pillar methods. Southfork Coal is controlled by coal operator Kenneth Stacy, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration database.

The proposed Southfork mine portals, access roads, sediment ponds and other surface facilities that would be used to mine the coal from the existing federal lease, private leases, and the lease application area are on private lands near the Whitley/McCreary County line and Highway 92. The existing Bucks Branch portals, used to access the coal for an existing lease, are not planned to be used to access these new reserves and at best may serve an ancillary use such as an escape way, ventilation conduits, etc.

BLM estimates that there is 150,000 tons of federal recoverable coal and 311,800 tons in place in the Southfork tract. These recoverable reserves would be mined along with approximately 95,000 tons remaining in the existing federal lease.

A March 23 Forest Service letter describes a third project, the Wildcat Branch Test Burn Project. The plan is to excavate 1,000 tons of usable coal refuse from a 15,000-ton refuse pile located on Wildcat Branch in Pulaski County, within the Daniel Boone National Forest. This area is loaded with abandoned coal mines that leach acid mine drainage into the local watershed. This test coal refuse would be trucked to be burned at East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s H.L. Spurlock power plant, which is about 150 miles from the site. Wildcat Branch is considered biologically dead due to the acid mine drainage and this project should improve its water quality.

The Forest Service website shows two other coal leasing projects that are currently on hold, with little information given on them other than that they are called the Compliance Coal and Goose Creek leases.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.