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Rush Creek mine expansion plan worries residents

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Residents of the Rush Creek area of Charleston are concerned about a coal mining company's plans to expand a mountaintop removal operation in their neighborhood.

Several dozen residents of Rush Creek and Mount Alpha Road turned out Thursday evening to voice their concerns and to question West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection officials about a permit application for the expansion.

Barney Frazier, a retired Charleston lawyer who has organized his neighbors to oppose the permit change, said he's worried approval of the project will bring more problems for his community.

"We're exposed to dust and vibrations from blasting, noise, bright lights at night," Frazier said. "Those things are just going to get worse."

Nearly a decade ago, Frazier got involved when Keystone Industries proposed a 375-acre mountaintop removal operation within sight of his home. The DEP approved the permit and Frazier and his neighbors appealed to the state Surface Mine Board.

The appeal was settled when the company agreed to carve out and not mine a "buffer zone," intended to block and protect the residents from at least some of the mining impacts.

Now, though, a new owner of the operation -- Revelation Energy LLC -- has asked the DEP to approve an amendment. The amendment would add more than 80 acres of "contour mining," allowing the company to get at another 650,000 tons of coal over the next two years.

The amendment does not propose mining in the exact area of the "buffer zone" previously agreed to, but Frazier and his neighbors argue that the proposal violates the intent of the deal: to protect an unmined barrier between the coal operation and their community.

Guy Branham, who lives across from Frazier, said he worries what other future plans Revelation Energy might have. The company operates under two state surface-mining permits in the Rush Creek area.

"Shouldn't we have the right to know what their plans are for the next 10 or 20 years?" Branham said Thursday evening. "How many amendments are they allowed? There's no end to it."

Friday morning, Jeff Hoops, CEO of Revelation Energy, refused to answer any questions about its operations or the company's permit application.

"We don't comment publicly," said Hoops, whose company lists an office in Milton on records with the state Secretary of State's Office.

The DEP held Thursday night's meeting not as a formal public hearing, but as an "informal conference." In such a meeting, agency officials are on hand with maps and permit records, and answer questions about a company's proposal. Residents provide official comments on the proposal, but those are heard off in a corner by a DEP official who sits at a table with a microphone and a notebook.

The format, adopted several years ago for strip-mining permit meetings, was intended to defuse loud and angry meetings where coal miners turned out in huge numbers to respond to residents who opposed new mountaintop removal permits. It avoids scenes where one side shouts or boos when opposing speakers are trying to have their say. However, it also prohibits residents from hearing their neighbors' official comments to the DEP -- which are supposed to be public and on the record.

During Thursday's meeting, some residents questioned the DEP about blasting at the existing Rush Creek mines, which was blamed for a huge "boom" that was heard throughout the Kanawha Valley in late February.

DEP officials said previous problems at the site led them to put more restrictions on the blasting at the company's existing operation. Agency officials have asked Revelation to add those restrictions to the blasting plans for the proposed amendment. The company has yet to respond to that request, DEP officials said.

Others at the meeting also worried that some portions of the amended permit might be visible from nearby Kanawha State Forest. DEP officials said they have computer software that allows them to predict visual impacts from mining but that they haven't yet used it to consider the Revelation amendment's possible effects.

In March 2000, Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, sold more than 4,000 acres of land on Rush Creek to longtime Charleston businessman Tom L. Scholl, who originally obtained permits for mining in the area.

A legal ad published concerning the new Revelation permit amendment says McCabe's McCabe Land Co. owns some of the land where the new mining will occur and some land located within 100 feet of the new mining.

McCabe said Friday that he wasn't familiar with the mining proposal.

"We've got some land beside it and we jointly own some land there with Tom Scholl, but I'm not aware that it's part of any permit," McCabe said. "I've had no contact with [the] DEP and I'm not familiar with the details of that transaction at all."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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