Protest mounted over coal mining, highway project in Virginia

More than 70 people rallied outside the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) on Dec. 5 calling for a more rigorous review of a proposed mountaintop removal coal/highway project in southwestern Virginia.

Residents from across Virginia and DC presented nearly 90,000 petitions to the administration and brought contaminated water from streams impacted by this form of coal mining within the aptly named Coalfields Expressway project, the Sierra Club said in a Dec. 5 statement.

“This is nothing more than a 100-mile-long mountaintop removal mine that they want to build through my community,” said Jane Branham, a resident of Wise County, Va. who spoke at the rally. “They have diverted the route of the road to follow a coal seam, but they say they don’t need another review. Allowing this project to proceed will mean more mountaintop removal mining, more waters polluted, more peoples’ lives affected and more people dying. This is nothing but a giveaway to the coal industry and we have had enough. The Federal Highway Administration must take a closer look at this project and give it the rigorous review it deserves.”

The more than $2bn project was approved by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration. Now, local residents are asking the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to require that the state submit a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to take into account significant changes to the project since coal mining companies were brought on. These coal partners were allowed to change the route of the expressway in order to maximize coal mining opportunities, even though that would move the route away from local business districts, the club said.

The new route threatens jobs and small businesses in towns like Pound, Va. that would be bypassed, the club added. It added that this would mean seizing up to 1,500 acres of private land and tripling the harmful impacts of the highway project on local waterways, including those used for drinking water.

Said a suggested comment from the club to be sent to regulators: “I’d like to express my concerns about the Coalfield Expressway, Section II, road project proposed for Southwest Virginia. The Virginia Department of Transportation’s Environmental Assessment for the road project fails to adequately disclose the project’s significant environmental impacts, as well as ways to avoid those impacts. I also ask that VDOT and FHWA consider alternative methods of economic development, fostering genuine quality of life for all be considered for the Southwest Virginia area.”

This kind of project is fairly common in southwestern Virginia and into nearby southern West Virginia. State highway agencies contract with coal companies, like Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR) and CONSOL Energy (NYSE: CNX), to clear the way for highway segments with a surface mining and reclamation program that leaves behind suitable roadbed, thus saving some of the money normally spent on roadbed creation.

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.