The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 1, 2012

EPA holdup on mining permit puts King Coal Highway in limbo

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

— The “war on coal” has spread into a new front, and this time, a side casualty, for the time being, is the King Coal Highway project in southern West Virginia.

Without the planned mining by Consol Energy, a section of the highway is thrown into limbo, since plans call for the use of post-mined land to build it.

Consol let 145 of its miners know Tuesday that they will be laid off, beginning in December, in notices under WARN, an acronym for the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, and Rep. Nick Rahall, all D-W.Va., reacted critically to the Environmental Protection Agency for holding up the permit affecting Consol’s operations in Mingo County. A 5-mile stretch of the King Coal Highway would be laid on the land once Consol is through digging the coal.

House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, whose district is directly affected by the delay, doesn’t believe there is any need to push the panic button at this point.

“I don’t think so right now,” White said Wednesday.

“In my opinion, the reality of all this was, once they got the permit, this wasn’t going to happen tomorrow. This was a deal that was going to be over a couple of years to continue to mine from one section of that mountain across to the other section to tie into the two of that four-lane that’s missing right now.”

White said he understands that there have been two problem areas in getting the EPA to approve the Consol permit, but the impending layoffs are not the final chapter.

“Those things can always be worked out if they can get people to sit down at the table and work them out,” the House leader said.

If King Coal is ever finished, the highway would stretch from Williamson to Bluefield, covering a distance of 90 miles, and become part of the Interstate 73/74 corridor.

West Virginia has leaned on coal operations to help build it under a private-public partnership plan, allowing operators to remove the coal while land is smoothed out for road construction.

White pointed to a 13-mile section of the road as one example of how this plan has been engaged with success.

Just recently, White hosted a tour of members of House and Senate finance panels, demonstrating the benefit of turning old mining properties into community assets — such as a new school, wood factory, concrete plant and a 5,000-foot airport runway.

Besides, he said, the Consol land in question because of the EPA dispute wasn’t to be the end-all of the highway.

“Even with this post-mine land use layout from Consol, it was going to be a few years to get that section mined through there,” the finance chairman said.

“It wasn’t going to happen tomorrow, or the next day.”

Based in Pittsburgh, Consol said the development affects its Miller Creek operations in Mingo County, embracing the Wiley, Wiley Creek and Minway surface mines, along with the Minway preparation plant and Miller Creek Administration Group.

Under the WARN law, employers are required to provide a 60-day notice of a closure, either to workers or their representatives, such as a union. Generally, the act embraces work operations with 100 or more employees.

Rahall said he would continue to help forge a united front in Congress to “knock some common sense into EPA.”

“This highway is exactly the type of project I have advocated for our post-mine lands — a project that will provide jobs and lasting economic benefits to our region for future generations,” he said.

Manchin said he is “incensed and frustrated” that the EPA would throw up a stumbling block to a project he supported in his days as governor.

“The EPA has lost court case after court case for its overreach and it should be using better judgment by now,” the senator added.

“In short, this project is a win-win and the EPA is trying to make it a loser.”

Rockefeller said the state cannot move forward when projects that have been negotiated for many years suddenly are hurled into limbo.

“People deserve straight answers from the federal government, without the delays and uncertainty,” he added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com