Frasure Creek Mining presented its case before the West Virginia Surface Mine Board for why the company believes the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was correct in granting it a surface mine permit in Fayette County this past January. County residents are appealing the permit, which they say has the potential to contaminate drinking water and negatively impact the county’s tourism economy and environment.
The Open Fork No. 2 permit is located one-half mile from the Page-Kincaid Public Service District wellheads, which supply 2,000 local residents with drinking water, and approximately 7 1/2 miles from the New River Gorge.
Expert witnesses, and even the company’s CEO, lined up to testify that the mining, which overlaps the PSD’s designated Source Water Protection Area, will not negatively impact the residents’ water supply.
“I don’t think these wells will ever be impacted by this mining,” said Charles McCulloch, an expert witness on mining-related groundwater issues for Frasure Creek. “I just don’t think the water can get there.”
He told the board that surface water should not affect the wells, which are drilled approximately 150 feet deep, and that the horizontal and vertical distances between the wells and the nearest point of mining are adequate to prevent impact.
Eric Calvert, Frasure Creek’s corporate legal counsel, took the stand and testified that the Page-Kincaid PSD could connect to the Fayetteville water system in an emergency. He said that when he contacted West Virginia American Water Company — a company he used to legally represent — about the situation, they reassured him that they would “jump in with all four feet to help if we should damage the well” in a worst-case scenario.
John David, a member of the Page-Kincaid PSD board, certainly hopes a worst-case scenario never occurs.
In an earlier interview, David expressed concerns over the permits.
“It’s not so much that we’re opposing (the permits),” he said. “It’s asking that our water source be protected, asking the DEP and those doing the mining to provide us assurances that they’re not going to put slurry in our aquifer.”
The PSD services about 1000 people, David pointed out. “I think the whole issue for us as a PSD, it’s our obligation to be concerned about people having healthy, clean, safe water,” he said.
A family who lives at the base of the adjacent Open Fork No. 1 mine claimed that their well was contaminated by the mining operation. Frasure Creek maintained that they did not damage the well’s water; nevertheless, they agreed to connect the family to the public water system and provide an undisclosed monetary settlement to help them pay for water.
At the appeal’s first hearing on July 12, an expert witness for the appellants, Jack Spadaro, testified that the sediment ponds ringing the permit, which are designed to catch and hold toxic runoff from the mine site, had the potential to overflow or topple in a landslide.
Ken Hodak, CEO of Frasure Creek Mining, countered that the structures are stable and more than appropriate for the job.
“Our intent was to overbuild relative to the minimum criteria,” he said. “In some cases, they were seven times the minimum standard imposed in the permit.”
Hodak and a blasting expert both denied that blasts from the site would be audible in the New River Gorge. Because of elevation differences, Hodak also denied that anyone rafting in the gorge would be able to see the mined area. He did, however, admit that some of the mountains visible from Fayetteville’s strip mall are in the company’s future mining plans, and that skydivers and tourists taking biplane rides could see the operation.
Frasure Creek has come under recent scrutiny for 1,520 violations they incurred in Kentucky. The company was ordered to pay for the violations, and the amount is currently being challenged by environmental groups. Hodak said the company has been working to improve their operations overall, hiring more employees to monitor water quality and clean ditches and ponds during heavy rainfalls. He attributed the violations in Kentucky mainly to “reporting and clerical mistakes.”
In fact, the company worked to build its case that Open Fork No. 2 will actually improve the environmental conditions at the site. The area was stripmined back before surface mine laws were in place, leaving 6 miles of exposed highwall. After taking a second cut along the highwalls, the company plans to dump overburden from their operations along the highwalls, grade them to the permit’s specifications, and revegetate the area.
Ultimately, the company claimed that if Open Fork No. 2 can’t operate, then the rest of their operations in the area, collectively known as the Deepwater Complex, would shut down. They claimed the metallurgical-grade coal there is an essential component of the blend of coal they provide to their customers. Hodak testified that the complex’s 230 employees are paid a total of $18 million per year and that the coal would provide jobs for 20 years.
Critics of the operation, however, said the “jobs vs. environment” argument doesn’t hold water, and that strip mining actually means fewer jobs for locals. A recent study by Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor at WVU, backs up this assertion, claiming that, “Areas with especially heavy mining have the highest unemployment rates in the region, contrary to the common perception that mining contributes to overall employment.”
Members of Mountain Health & Heritage Association, a grassroots group fighting the numerous surface mine operations Frasure Creek plans in northwestern Fayette County, congregated outside the DEP offices and did a bit of testifying of their own.
Paul Brown, who spent 30 years working in and around coal mines in Fayette County, was among them.
“I am not here today to try to stop coal mining,” he said. “Do not believe those people who tell you we are here to take away your jobs. This is not true. People, we must start now to make the transition from coal to alternative energy. This, in turn, will create jobs for today’s workforce and also for our children.
“We must stop fighting amongst ourselves right now and begin working together to build a better world and avoid destroying the beautiful one God has already given us.”
Now that the appellants, DEP, and Frasure Creek have all closed their cases, they will file final briefs, and the Surface Mine Board will make a determination on the permit’s status, a process that usually takes several months.
Meanwhile, work on the Open Fork No. 2 mine continues, and residents of Beards Fork recently received official notices from the company that blasting would soon begin on the neighboring Glenco Hollow Surface Mine.
(Additional reporting by Cheryl Keenan.)