Last week, Judy Bonds, Bo Webb and other Coal River residents met privately with Gov. Joe Manchin.
They wanted the governor to hear firsthand their concerns about Massey Energy’s plan to expand its operations near Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County, near Sundial.
Residents told Manchin a proposed new coal silo would be too close to the school. They worried that dust and other pollution would harm the students. They warned that an adjacent coal slurry dam could break.
Manchin promised to investigate the complaints, and the citizens walked away encouraged.
“He really listened, and he seemed concerned,” Bonds said after the June 21 meeting in Manchin’s Capitol office.
Then on Thursday morning, the state Department of Environmental Protection approved the same Massey permits that the citizens were worried about — just days after they met with Manchin.
DEP Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer renewed a permit for Massey subsidiary Goals Coal Co.’s Shumate impoundment.
The 385-foot-high dam can hold up to 2.8 billion gallons of liquid coal waste, according to government records.
At the same time, Timmermeyer approved a new permit and a permit revision to allow Goals Coal to build a new 168-foot-tall coal silo just 260 feet from the school.
The probe that Manchin promised had not yet been organized. No one from the governor’s office told the citizens before DEP sent out a news release about the permit approvals. They learned about it when a Gazette reporter called them for comment.
“We’re so disgusted with the governor,” said Webb, an activist with the group Coal River Mountain Watch.
“Governor Manchin was well aware of our concerns for those kids after our meeting with him last week,” he said. “Apparently, he wasn’t concerned enough to have the DEP hold off on issuing the permit.”
Lara Ramsburg, the governor’s communications director, said that Manchin still intends to have his staff examine the citizens’ concerns.
“The technical requirements of the permits are something the DEP has reviewed, and we will leave to them,” Ramsburg said. “But it doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned and aren’t going to look into and get to the bottom of this situation.”
In its news release, DEP said, “It should be noted that while the technical requirements of the permits involved have been satisfied, the governor has asked members of his senior staff and representatives of the DEP, the Department of Health and Human Resources and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training to meet and review possible safety concerns with regard to the students and surroundings of Marsh Fork Elementary School.”
DEP said those meetings would be scheduled for next week.
But as late as Wednesday evening, DEP officials could not explain exactly what the governor wanted done.
“As far as what the agency’s role is, we don’t know that yet,” said Jessica Greathouse, DEP’s communications chief. “We haven’t gotten any guidance about what our role might be.”
When a report about Manchin’s promise to the residents showed up on a Bluefield television station, the DEP staffers who were reviewing the Massey permits called agency headquarters to ask what was going on.
Randy Huffman, director of DEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation, said Wednesday that call was the first he had heard about Manchin’s promised investigation.
Huffman said that, as of Wednesday, the only call he had about the permits was from a Massey official who wanted to know when they would be approved.
“That’s the only call I’ve had,” Huffman said. “I’ve not been contacted.”
By promising his investigation, Manchin has for the first time since taking office in January directly involved himself in the mountaintop removal issue and what coalfield residents say are other coal industry abuses.
Over the last few weeks, environmental groups hosting a summer of protests against the practice have focused their attentions on Massey and especially the company’s operations near the Marsh Fork School.
The Goals preparation plant is part of Massey’s performance complex, which features an underground mine that produced 2.8 million tons of coal last year with a sophisticated longwall machine.
Massey wants to add a second coal silo to the operation’s railroad loading facility to allow it to separately store coal it ships to steelmakers and power plants, DEP officials said.
Under the 1977 federal strip mining law, new “surface coal mining operations” are not allowed within 300 feet of a school. Mining operations that existed when the law was passed are exempt from that prohibition.
DEP records show the new silo would be 220 feet from the school’s property line and 260 feet from the school building itself.
Keith Porterfield, deputy director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation’s Oak Hill field office, said that his staff processed the silo approval as a revision to an existing permit that dates back to before the strip mine law was passed.
Because the new silo would be built within that pre-existing mine permit boundary, DEP concluded it was exempt from the 300-foot school buffer zone, Porterfield said.
“If you have a facility out there that was operating, we’re not going to enforce this rule,” Porterfield said. “You get a get out of jail free card.”
He noted that Massey originally applied for the silo construction as a minor permit revision — a change that would not allow for public comment or a hearing.
DEP staff rejected that and processed the change as a significant permit change, so the public could comment and a hearing would be held.
“We wanted to give the people the right to have their say,” Porterfield said.
In its Thursday actions, the DEP mining office also approved a five-year permit renewal for the Goals operation’s slurry impoundment. Porterfield said the renewal contained no permit changes.
Also, the DEP Division of Air Quality approved an air pollution permit for the new coal silo.
Katherine Kenny, a spokeswoman at Massey’s corporate headquarters in Richmond, Va., did not return a phone call Thursday afternoon.