Hearing airs pros and cons of mining near OU ancient forest
By Jim Phillips
Athens NEWS Senior Writer

A plan to expand a coal-mining operation under an old-growth forest in Belmont County brought about 30 people out to an informal conference, held Thursday evening in St. Clairsville by the Ohio Division of Mineral Resource Management.

Of the 14 people who offered comment on a large mining permit application by the Ohio Valley Coal Co., only two -- a company official and an officer of the United Mine Workers of America -- showed strong support for the project. The others expressed concern for the impact the mine could have on local landowners and on the oldest trees of Dysart Woods, probably the most significant stand of virgin forest left in the state. The forest is owned by Ohio University.

Peter Townsend, a hydrogeologist at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, who has been hired by the Athens-based Buckeye Forest Council, said mining underneath Dysart Woods is likely to weaken or kill many of the oldest trees, some of them centuries old.

In human terms, Townsend noted, "Dysart Woods is full of senior citizens," which may be more susceptible to damage from soil subsidence than younger trees. Though Ohio Valley has done studies that it claims show undermining won't hurt Dysart's trees, Townsend pointed out that these studies have been in areas outside Dysart's core of oldest trees.

"The surrounding areas don't give us a particularly good model," he argued. "I don't believe the older trees are going to be able to survive (undermining)."

A coal company expert, however, said any assessment based on "scientific data, not emotions, not hearsay, not anecdotal reference," must conclude that the coal under Dysart can be mined without hurting the ancient trees. Ohio Valley environmental coordinator David Bartsch noted that Dysart's owner, OU, sent no one to speak in opposition to the proposed mine expansion.

"OU is confident that longwall mining could proceed beneath the old-growth forest," Bartsch said, adding however, that Ohio Valley CEO Robert Murray has nonetheless chosen not to use longwalling under the old-growth core, but rather to utlilize traditional underground "room-and-pillar" techniques in that area.

A "fact sheet" handed out at the conference by Ohio Valley, likewise, argues that "those who make claims that Dysart Woods will be harmed by mining in this area have no scientific evidence to back up their claims."

Under consideration at the conference was state mining permit D-0360-12, which covers an area including all of Dysart Woods including its core of oldest trees. In 1998, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Mines and Reclamation designated the woods off-limits to mining, but that ruling was later reversed. Though mining opponents have appealed the reversal, which clears the way for Ohio Valley to mine under the forest, the decision has been upheld repeatedly, most recently by the 7th District Court of Appeals earlier this year.

The D-0360-12 permit application calls for longwall mining -- considered the most dangerous to the trees -- outside the old-growth core of Dysart, and traditional underground "room-and-pillar" mining beneath the old-growth section, which is around 70 acres in a forest of more than 450 acres.

John Kinder of Belmont County, who was involved decades ago in getting the Nature Conservancy to buy the woods from a private owner (the group later turned it over to OU), said he believes Ohio Valley's mining plan puts the forest's oldest trees in danger.

"I think they're about to be starved of their water supply, and I think we should see what we can do to stop that from happening," Kinder said, adding that he thinks Ohio Valley should donate the coal directly under Dysart's old-growth section to OU. "They could get, I think, some tax considerations for that," he suggested. "It's a tiny fragment of their holdings."

Athens environmental activist Chad Kister, head of the group Dysart Defenders and a long-time crusader against mining near the woods, gave a lengthy presentation, in which he cited chapter and verse of Ohio Valley's permit application to document his claim that even the coal company knows mining would endanger the trees.

"To claim that room-and-pillar mining does not cause subsidence is ludicrous," Kister declared. "Clearly, there will be subsidence... Room and pillar will collapse over time."

Among other points in the application, Kister noted that it predicts "long-term dewatering of the soil mass" in the forest by mining. This will kill off Dysart's oldest trees, he said -- though Ohio Valley experts claim the trees get most of their water directly from rainfall, not from water held in the soil.

Larry Vucelich, president of Local 1810 of the United Mine Workers of America, noted that while opponents of the mining proposal raise the prospect of environmental devastation, "there are other types of devastation too -- being unemployed." Vucelich said the union recently reached a contract agreement with Ohio Valley, but that this won't count for much in bringing laid-off miners back to work unless the Dysart expansion is approved. "Without this permit, we're dead in the water," he predicted.

Vucelich said the lack of mining jobs has caused economic hardship for laid-off members of the local. "One guy, he goes to flea markets -- that's how he makes a living," Vucelich reported.

Citing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the unrest in the Middle East, the union official argued that "it's time that we quit being dependent on foreign oil" and exploit more domestic coal energy. "And we've got people that don't want to mine coal -- it's hard to believe it," he said.

Susan Heitker of the Athens-based Buckeye Forest Council, however, said she agrees with Bartsch of Ohio Valley that any decisions on Dysart should be based on good science. If that's done, she said, the permit will be denied. She cited one basic scientific principle that should be taken into account: "It's called gravity."

If the soil underneath Dysart's oldest trees is hollowed out by room-and-pillar mining, she said, gravity will sooner or later push the soil above down into the empty space. Though mining supporters claim the pillars left in place will hold for at least 30 years, Heitker asked, "what will happen in 100 years?"

She also chastised the Division of Mineral Resource Management for what she alleged is a strong bias in favor of coal companies. "The division seems to always rule with the coal company," Heitker alleged. "I feel like the division really doesn't listen, unless it's the coal company talking."

Division Chief Michael Sponsler, who attended the conference, responded afterwards that "we listen to all of the comments, but what we have to base our decision on is what's set forth in the laws and the rules and the regulations... Issues of whether fossil fuel is proper or not is just not part of what our role is as defined by law."

Other opponents of the mining included area landowners, who worried about loss of their water supplies if the mining is allowed.

Russ Gibson of the Division told those in attendance that the decision on the permit application would probably take a long time to reach, though he did not specify any timetables.