The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 16, 2009

Groups continue to fight Bridge Fork mine permit

Steve Keenan

Two groups have appealed a permit for the Bridge Fork West Surface Mine overlooking the Gauley River.

Citing unacceptable threats to local communities, world-class whitewater rapids and historic sites, the Sierra Club and the Ansted Historic Preservation Council continued their opposition of a permit for the 463.8-acre mine site located between the New and Gauley rivers. The mine is operated by Powellton Coal Co., a subsidiary of Fola Coal Co. and Consol Energy.

The surface mine permit was renewed by the state Department of Environmental Protection on March 16. At an informal conference in mid-February at Ansted Middle School, more than 100 people — many of them opposed — gathered to discuss the renewal request with DEP officials.

On Thursday, the two groups mailed an appeal to the state Surface Mine Board, according to Derek Teaney of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. They insist that Powellton Coal is violating the Clean Water Act by dumping illegal levels of toxic aluminum, iron and suspended solids into Rich Creek, a trout stream that feeds into the Gauley.

“This permit renewal would lead to pollution of our famed rivers, more blasting and air pollution, and more damage to our tourism industry, so we firmly oppose this renewal,” said Father Roy Gene Crist, AHPC president.

“The region in which Powellton’s mine is located is one of West Virginia’s tourism gems, and the New and Gauley are the premier whitewater rafting rivers in the East. Rich Creek of the Gauley River, in whose watershed Powellton operates ..., is a known trout stream,” a portion of the appeal reads. “Yet Powellton treats the streams and lands surrounding its permit areas as dumping grounds for the waste from its mine.”

The groups say more than 3,000 public comments came in to the DEP in opposition of the permit. And the National Park Service expressed its opposition in a January letter to the DEP from Don Striker, superintendent of the New River Gorge National River, Gauley River National Recreational Area and Bluestone National Scenic River.

“In consideration of the water quality violations at this site, apparent violations at other mine sites operated by Powellton and the cumulative impacts to the environment, we request that DEP deny this permit renewal until a full evaluation of cumulative effects can occur with public input,” Striker wrote.

“The groups who filed this appeal made similar comments during the review process, and we responded to those comments as part of the normal review/approval process,” said Tom Hoffman, CONSOL Energy’s senior vice president of external affairs. “… this is merely a renewal of an existing permit; we believe it was appropriately issued by DEP, and we will, of course, be prepared to defend the validity of the appeal.”

— E-mail: skeenan@register-herald.com