|Hearing airs pros and cons of mining near OU
|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
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
"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
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."
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
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
"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."
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.
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
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
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
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.