July 27, 2012

What do you know about the Coalfields Expressway?

Mountaintop mining
I pride myself on knowing at least a little about all things environmental. But yesterday I first heard about the proposed Coalfields Expressway in southwestern Virginia through an email from the Virginia Chapter of Sierra Club. I realize that I live about as far away from this part of Virginia as possible. But Appalachia has always appealed to me even though I haven't driven through this area in quite a few years.

If you have also been unaware, the Coalfields Expressway is a proposed 116 mile long four-lane limited access highway that begins (or ends) in southwest Virginia and extends into West Virginia. It promises to be an economic lifeline for this area in which coal mining jobs have diminished greatly during the last decade.

About 50 miles of this highway will be in Virginia and 65 miles in West Virginia. VDOT has partnered with Alpha Natural Resources to develop the Virginia portion of this expressway. This public-private partnership for a $4.2 billion road could be a good thing. The coalsynergy partnership brings down the public side of the cost to $2.1 billion. It is one way to “reclaim” mining sites.

But the Virginia Chapter of Sierra Club states otherwise: “Coal companies proposed and drew the route of the Coalfields Expressway to increase their profits, not serve the public. Small towns will be bypassed, more than 12 miles of streams will be buried, and hundreds of acres of privately held land will be condemned and handed over for King Coal's profit. All to build an expensive and unnecessary road that cannot deliver the economic miracle its political cheerleaders promise. Those same politicians receive major contributions from the companies set to benefit most from this $2 billion project."

The issue is that it may be built entirely along the ridgelines, many of which have been strip mined, and spare the populated valleys. But it is being marketed as a way to bring back the economy of these towns in sparsely populated Wise, Dickinson and Buchanan counties,coincidentally Virginia's largest natural gas producers. Strip or surface mines mined areas are prevalent throughout this area, generally located near or on mountaintops. Fault lines exist in the area as well.

Bridges for this expressway will be the tallest in Virginia at around 250 feet high. But the road could take 10-15 years to complete. Construction began in 1999 in West Virginia and 2002 in Virginia and it is progressing slowly as funds become available.

I sifted through the lengthy but thorough Coalfields Expressway Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and read that “A recently completed study (by the Annapolis consulting group Hill & Associates) estimates that all of Virginia’s coal reserves worth mining will be depleted by 2026, and that efforts to find more coal in central Appalachia will probably prove unsuccessful.” Yet, VDOT’s expressway project moves forward as a “congestion relief project”  and to improve the area’s economic development potential.

To appreciate the vast difference of opinion in past estimates . . . 
  • The U.S. Department of Energy estimated that 1.609 million tons of recoverable coal currently exist in Virginia and that reserves would be depleted in 36 years. 
  • The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, however, predicts 50 years. 
  • Also from the EIS: “Coal mining operations have damaged groundwater supplies in the area, and lack of reliable and safe drinking water remains a problem for residents in outlying and remote areas.” Yet coal mining has long served as the cornerstone of this region’s economy. Employment in the coal industry, however, has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past decade.
Environmental justice is a phrase that rarely hits the public. It refers to public policy that could negatively impact human health and the environment in low income or minority populated areas. Hmm.