July 31, 2008

Environmental Groups Sue To Halt Logging At Future Mine Site

By Debra McCown, Bristol Herald Courier, Va.

Jul. 31--In a move they say is unprecedented, two environmental groups have taken legal action in an attempt to stop clear-cutting of trees on a proposed mine site.

Appalachia, Va.-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club hope to delay tree-cutting by a timber company until A&G Coal Corp. receives a surface mining permit for the land.

For Gary Bowman, a 67-year-old disabled coal miner who says the operation has sent a dozen watermelon-sized rocks tumbling down the mountain into his family's garden, the issue is personal.

"It was my choice to go underground and make a living for my family," Bowman said, "not to put them in coal-mining danger on their back porch from a company like this."

A request for a temporary restraining order, which would stop the logging until the case could be heard, is scheduled for a hearing in federal court at 1 p.m. Friday in Abingdon.

It asks the court to order U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to issue an order to stop work at the site.

"In essence, clear-cutting is the first step. Next they'll start blasting the mountains and burying the streams," said Aaron Isherwood, staff attorney for the Sierra Club. "There's a prohibition on disturbing the site and clearing it to prepare the site for mining [without a surface mining permit], and until that permit has been issued, the site should be left alone."

Representatives of A&G Coal Corp., which is seeking a mining permit for the 1,000-acre Ison Rock Ridge site just outside Appalachia town limits, had no comment.

Karl Kindig, part owners of logging company Mountain Forest Products, said his crews are doing the work for the property owner, Penn Virginia.

"Our company is not engaged in any form of mining," Kindig said. "We're simply harvesting the timber for the landowner."

According to its Web site, Penn Virginia is a Pennsylvania-based company that manages coal properties and other operations related to the energy industry.

"Really what they're arguing is that once somebody files a mining permit, then the surface owner is not permitted to do anything on their property. We don't believe that's an accurate reflection of what the law is in that case," Kindig said.

"If the mineral lessee says, 'We're going to mine the property,' it's perfectly logical for the surface owner to try to recover the timber on the property before that happens. It certainly doesn't convert just a normal timber operation into a mining operation."

Assistant Regional Forester Bill Miller said the logging company is in compliance with all forestry laws and notified the Virginia Department of Forestry in the required time frame that the operation was taking place.

Gavin Bledsoe, legal services officer for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, said his agency considers the tree cutting to be a logging operation, not mining.

He said A&G's mining permit application has been reviewed several times -- but several reviews are not unusual and a public hearing will be held to receive public comment before a final decision is made. A date has not yet been set for the hearing.

Isherwood called the reasoning "entirely superficial."

"They can't skirt the law by just leaving the coal company's name off the lease," Isherwood said. "The application that the coal company submitted makes it clear that the site will be logged to prepare it for mining."

Bowman said the mining for which A&G is seeking a permit would dump 22 million cubic yards of waste into nine valleys and destroy more than 14,000 feet of streams, as well as placing a 2-million-gallon wastewater reservoir directly behind his house.

He said his $239,000 home, into which he and his wife poured their life savings, will be worthless if a strip mine moves in next door.

Additionally, he's afraid to spend much time in the backyard because of the rocks.

"I'm afraid to get out there and work in my garden [and let] my grandkids get out there ... there's rocks still up in there, and they could come down on us," he said. "I don't want another one of them so-called accidents [like] when that rock came down and killed that child a couple years ago."

A&G is the same company that made a $3 million settlement after a boulder dislodged by a bulldozer landed on a home and killed a 3-year-old boy in his bed in 2004.

Bowman said the adjacent community of Andover, and then the Town of Appalachia, will be next on the list for such destruction that previously has befallen other communities nearby.

"You know that gob pile that power plant is going to be putting out? We're going to be that gob pile," he said. "What one time made this a boom town is going to put a wreath on it."

Pete Ramey, who first made his home in the nearby community of Roda in 1948, said he had to leave because of the strip mining there.

"It was the dust, the noise, and the blasting and rocks flying from the blasting into homes," Ramey said. "The fear is terrible, the fear of blasting on the mountains above you. It's still going on."

He said in the last decade the community -- like coal communities throughout the region -- has dwindled from more than 500 residents to fewer than 100.

"There's people who still live there, but they're just gradually coming down the mountain as most of them are forced to move," Ramey said. "The community's been destroyed."

Though a Wise County native, Bowman said he never took much notice of the dust and dangers brought by mountaintop mining and the logging that precedes it -- until it reached his backyard.

"I have the right to do whatever I want to do on my property as long as I don't offend or endanger my neighbor, and whenever your neighbor can come in and do this to you and there's nothing you can do about it, we're in trouble," he said.

"Tomorrow it's going to be in your backyard"

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