SPRUCE VALLEY - Arch Coal Inc. lawyer Blair Gardner sipped ice water on James Weekley's front porch swing Monday afternoon. Gardner walked up Pigeonroost Branch and listened to Weekley reminisce about hunting squirrels on the mountainside and fishing with his grandchildren in the stream.
Hummingbirds hovered around feeders hung on Weekley's porch. Beech, oak and walnut trees covered the surrounding hills. The sounds of the flowing stream hung in the background.
Gardner's company plans to cut off these mountaintops to reach the coal seams underneath. Leftover rock and dirt would be dumped in a valley fill that will bury 1 miles of Pigeonroost Branch and stretch to within 1,000 feet of Weekley's home."This is a beautiful hollow," Weekley told Gardner. "This is my life here - 58 years of it. I don't want to see it destroyed."
Gardner responded, "It is pretty. We've been enjoying the birds while we sit here."
But Gardner said that wouldn't change Arch Coal's determination to receive what is believed to be the largest surface mining permit in state history.
If the permit is approved, Arch Coal will transfer huge earth-moving equipment east across W.Va. 17 to strip 3,100 acres, or about 5 square miles, north of Blair Mountain in Logan County. The operation will remove 80 million tons of coal perhaps $2 billion worth over the next 15 years.
Residents of the Blair area say many of their neighbors were already chased away by blasting, dust and noise from Arch Coal's active Dal-Tex complex on the west side of the highway. One couple has sued Arch Coal, saying the mine is a nuisance.
Arch, the nation's second largest coal producer, has offered to buy out many of the remaining residents and made some permit changes that state officials believe will help avoid future problems.
"Mr. Weekley, we have a permit application and we're going to continue to process it," Gardner said. "If you're determined to stay here, we have to try to coexist with you as best we can."
Three weeks ago, Weekley and other coalfield residents shouted down Gardner, a top Arch coal lawyer from St. Louis, when he tried to give a pro-strip mining presentation at a U.S. Office of Surface Mining conference in Huntington. Gardner agreed at the time to visit Weekley's homeplace to see for himself why Weekley opposes mountaintop removal mining. Weekley is one of the coalfield residents who has filed a formal notice of intent to sue state regulators over mountaintop removal mining.
During part of the two-hour visit Monday, Gardner and Dal-Tex General Manager Mark White sat on Weekley's porch swing while Weekley recited his concerns about the proposed new mine.
Weekley said blasting from the existing mine has already damaged the foundation of his home. Dust from the mine makes it hard for Weekley and his wife to keep their siding clean. Noise from heavy equipment is constant.