By C.V. Moore
A coal company says it cannot give a “definitive” response as to whether it may one day try to use the rail bed of the planned Meadow River Rail Trail, a publicly-funded project in Fayette and Greenbrier counties. The state has decided to move forward with the project anyway.
“In short, it is possible that the company may have an interest in the future in utilizing the railroad bed ... but it has no present plans to do so,” states Bob VanHoose, the manager of Business Development for Xinergy Corp., a Knoxville-based coal company.
The 16.5-mile rail trail is a collaborative effort between the Fayette and Greenbrier county commissions, who purchased the rail bed from CSX last year with the help of stimulus money, a Recreational Trails Program grant from the West Virginia Department of Highways (WVDOH) and the National Parks Service.
So far, $435,000 has been secured for the project, with an additional $300,000 in grant applications currently under review.
WVDOH representatives reported to the Fayette and Greenbrier County Commissions at a June 29 meeting that an employee of Xinergy approached an employee of the WVDOH and shared the company’s interest in moving coal out of a newly acquired surface mine northwest of Lookout by rail, and possibly using the trail’s rail bed.
The Xinergy employee even shared a couple of maps of the rail options under consideration and said Xinergy had already invested $18 million in the operation, according to WVDOH employee Ryan Burns. Burns also said the employee expressed that the company was “willing to invest any amount of money it will take to make this happen.”
The WVDOH asked the Fayette and Greenbrier County Commissions to investigate.
But in response to a letter of inquiry from Fayette County Prosecuting Attorney Carl Harris about the matter, Xinergy says it does not own, lease or hold any permits for mines in Fayette County.
However, the company says it is considering the possible acquisition and development of some underground mines, which may include properties in Fayette County.
“Any evaluation of the feasibility of utilizing the railroad bed near Nallen would be a part of the commitment by the company to the acquisition and development of any such properties or operations,” writes VanHoose.
“As a result, any further comment or commitment ... is premature at this time.”
After upper-level WVDOH management examined the company’s response to a Harris’ letter, they recently decided to move forward with the project.
“We perceived something that needed to be investigated and proven that it would be worth the further investment of public money,” says Bill Robinson, coordinator for the State Trails Program at the WVDOH. “That was their decision.”
Robinson would not comment on why the Xinergy employee may have made false reports.
The next step will be to advertise bids for the construction of one section of the trail between Nallen and Russellville.
Fayette County Commission President Matthew Wender says he feels good about the decision to move forward with the project and discounted the discussion of reopening the railway from the beginning, calling it “all innuendo.”
“I think a prudent coal company would have resolved the issue of how to move the coal far before opening up a mine or getting approval to mine,” he says.
The section of track is “railbanked,” which is “a method by which corridors that would otherwise be abandoned can be preserved for future rail use through interim conversion to a trail,” according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
If Xinergy or any other coal company were to need to use the rail bed, the trail owner — in this case the two county commissions — would have to allow it.
“But they can negotiate the terms,” says Peggy Pings, an outdoor recreation planner with the National Parks Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program. “The railroad doesn’t get to have it back for free, and I would think that (the commissions) would want to get their money back out of it that they had put into it.”
Construction of the trail was originally to be paid for with stimulus money, but was subsequently converted to Transportation Enhancement Grant money, eliminating the pressure of a September deadline to spend the funds.
The project is currently in the running for another $50,000 grant from the Recreational Trails Program and $250,000 from the WVDOH’s SAFETEA-21 program.
Wender says he hopes the uncertainties raised about the rail bed’s future does not put these applications at risk.
The project has likely lost a construction season due to the investigation.