The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 27, 2011

Beards Fork community fears logging is first step toward being surrounded by surface mines

BEARDS FORK — A small, isolated community in Fayette County is seeing the first clear signs of the surface mine operations that may one day nearly surround it. Loggers moved in to Beards Fork last week, felling trees on a hillside abutting the back yards of residents and lifting logs out of the mountains by helicopter.

“Beards Fork has always been a quiet, close-knit community with a sense of ownership of this area,” says local resident Artie Mullins. “We know we don’t own the mountains, but this just seems invasive. We’re not used to it.”

Advantage Timberland out of Bluefield manages the timber rights on the property — owned by Pocahontas Land Co. — for Appalachian Forest LLC. Advantage Timberland President Terry Owen says with the planned surface mining, the trees will be bulldozed in mining operations if not harvested soon.

“We’re forced to do this timber harvesting now because of the surface mining going in,” he says. “We have to cut wood ahead of the surface mine so we don’t lose value that the landowner has in purchasing the timber rights.”

According to Owen, the company is logging the spots of forest land that won’t be reachable once mining operations begin. It must be done in winter when the leaves are down, for safety reasons, he says. The area won’t see another round of logging for 50 years, he estimates, “however long it takes for a surface mine to recover.”

The selective logging behind Kathryn South’s house happened suddenly and was over in a day. She says logs rolled down into the flower bushes in her backyard. South moved back to the area in 2004 and worries about flooding and mudslides, which neighbors say were a problem the last time the mountain was logged.

“Right when I think I’ll be able to have a decent house, it’s going to be washed out from under me,” she says.

Owen says the company is using helicopters to avoid erosion and leave “the lightest environmental footprint” it can. With helicopters involved, the timeline for finishing depends on weather, he says.

“It could be three more weeks (after the holidays) if they get clear days, or it could be twice that long.”

“My fear is this is the first step,” says Mullins. “You can see where they’ve removed the mountaintop at the end of the holler. When (loggers are) working up there at night, it sounds like they’re in my backyard. It’s just getting closer and closer, more threatening.”

Six of the nine planned Frasure Creek surface mines in Fayette County nearly encircle the community of Beards Fork. Four of those nearby permits are pending, and two have already been issued.

Frasure Creek Mining, which did not immediately return calls for comment, has a pending permit application for the 486-acre Beards Fork Surface Mine, which would allow auger, contour, area and highwall mining activity, plus a haul road. The permit allows variances for in-stream drainage control and mining within 100 feet of a stream. It includes valley fills, areas where mine spoil is dumped into nearby hollows.

In January 2010, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s website noted that the Beards Fork Surface Mine permit application “will not be reviewed until signoff is received from (the Environmental Protection Agency),” which issues permits for valley fills.

For those who have lived in Beards Fork all their lives, the mining will change a landscape they know intimately.

“I’ve been here my whole life,” says local resident Billy Shell. “I hunt this holler. I know every holler from (Route) 61 back this way. We’ve been seeing this coming for a while, but this is the worst I’ve seen yet.”

Shell estimates that three trucks make about 20 hauls up Beards Fork Road per day total.

“It’s really sad,” says his wife, Drema, 72. “It almost makes you want to cry.”

“We’re one of the few coal mine hollers that still has a vibrant community because it’s safe and family-oriented,” says Mullins.

When Frasure Creek met with Beards Fork residents, Mullins says rumors swirled about the company buying out property owners. He says people came out because, more than anything, they were curious. But with logging operations under way, Mullins thinks they are becoming alarmed.

“We haven’t been real vocal as a community about the mining. This is the first time we as a community have some concerns. We hope the permits won’t allow them to wipe us off the map, but at this stage, you don’t know.”

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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