West Virginia lawmakers said they were impressed with a $300 million coal mine and processing facility they toured in Logan County Sunday. They praised the Arch Coal Inc. plant for being state-of-the-art, safe and efficient.
That investment, however, comes at a cost for the environment and some residents, critics say.
Arch officials told lawmakers that this facility was one of the best in the industry. They bragged they were able to recruit experienced workers when other coal companies cannot. And they touted their effort to bring public water supplies to families nearby.
The new coal mine straddles the Logan/Boone County border. It mines the same Alma seam as Massey Energy Co.’s Aracoma Mine, where two miners died in a January conveyor-belt fire.
It is also only a few miles from Blair Mountain, where thousands of miners confronted state and federal troops in an effort to unionize West Virginia mines.
The plant is expected to process up to 10 million tons of coal by 2008 from an underground longwall mine and a proposed surface mine.
The complex employs about 140 people now and is expected to employ more than 400 when it reaches full production capacity, said David Runyon, project manager.
”Other companies may think they can get by on 325 employees, but they’re going to suffer because they’re overworking those individuals,” Runyon said. ”We think an overworked person is an unsafe person.”
Several coal companies are having trouble finding qualified miners, but Arch is known for paying its workers well and providing a safe workplace, Runyon said.
”Arch Coal’s reputation speaks in this community,” Runyon said. The miners likely will come from other mines in the area, he said.
The mine-processing facility includes a raw coal storage area with four huge silos, a preparation plant with three separate modules, a clean coal storage area with four more huge silos and a ”loadout” tower, where a 150-car train can be loaded with coal in less than four hours.
To make room for the facility, the company cut into the hillsides of Seng Camp Creek, flattened the area and routed the stream through an underground culvert that company officials said would protect the water from contamination.
Arch also straightened and upgraded a mile of W.Va. 17, built five miles of railroad tracks to the facility and paid for a two-mile extension of public water that has helped bring water to some area families.
Delegate Eustace Frederick, D-Mercer, a former coal company vice president, said he was very impressed with the technology and level of investment.
”They have bought first-class equipment, their longwall system is relatively safe and efficient, and they have huge amounts of raw coal and clean coal storage,” Frederick said. ”This is a big, big plus to the state.”
”Arch Coal is clearly making investments for the long-term,” said Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha. ”We need to encourage other companies to re-invest their profits from this coal boom into projects like this.”
That investment comes with a high price for the land, water and local communities, said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group.
Rank’s group is suing the Army Corps of Engineers, which provides permits for mines like Arch’s proposed Spruce No. 1. The mine would remove much of Pidgeonroost Mountain and fill nearby streams.
”Arch is systematically and permanently destroying the waters of West Virginia,” Rank said.
The nearby towns of Blair and Sharples have lost much of their population in recent years. Some have been bought out by mining companies seeking to get local residents out of the way, Rank said.
”Arch and others in subtle ways have bought enough people out to make it very difficult for people to remain there,” she said. ”They are making a great investment in their own profits, but they are ignoring the communities that are being destroyed in the process.”
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