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Coal lawyer visits future mine site

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.

"It continues 24 hours a day, scraping and rattling," Weekley said. "That's 24 hours a day, seven days a week I have that when I'm sitting here on the porch."

Gardner and White responded that the Dal-Tex operation complies with current environmental rules. Gardner scribbled notes on a bright yellow legal pad.

"I think that it's important that we listen to everything you have to say so we're not going to dispute or argue about anything," Gardner said. "I'm not disputing that you can feel a blast and I'm not saying I don't believe you when you say it knocked a picture off your wall. But the record shows we're not in violation of the regulations."

Weekley asked how the coal company officials would feel if "a coal company or a chemical company or a logging company came in and destroyed where you lived all your life."

Gardner responded, "I don't deny your sincerity, Mr. Weekley. When you say you are attached to your home and your property, you are sincere."

White said, "I can't say how I'd feel. I try to empathize with Mr. Weekley, but I can't say how I'd feel."

Weekley also took Gardner, White and a herd of reporters and camera crews on a walk up Pigeonroost Branch.

At times, the group walked along the creek in areas Arch Coal plans to bury under a valley fill.

"Look around you, sir," Weekley said. "Look at how beautiful it is."

Just a few hundred feet up the hollow from Weekley's house, his 84-year-old mother, Sylvia, sat on the porch of her own home. "This is her homeplace," Weekley said. "I was born here."

"When you come in here and do this, all I'm going to have left are memories," Weekley said. "Money can't buy my memories. Look at all the species of trees and plants that are going to be destroyed. Why? Why? Why?"

Gardner said, "The reason, Mr. Weekley, is that we have a resource that is valuable and that the market wants. That is coal."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.

Legislators cancel mine tour, hear from residents anyway

By Martha Bryson Hodel

FOSTER (AP) - Southern West Virginia residents told state lawmakers Monday they're tired of being ignored by state officials and abandoned by insurers when they try seek reprieve from nearby blasting at massive strip mines known as mountaintop removal mines.

The concussion and debris from explosions at mines in Boone, Logan and Mingo counties damages homes and endangers lives, residents told the members of a House Government Operations subcommittee that toured the community of Foster in Boone County.

Trying to get reimbursed for the damage is all but impossible, they said, whether from the coal company or their insurance company.

"The coal company said the damage occurred because the house was settling. Then we talked to our insurance company about it, and they canceled our policy," said Tressie Judy, who lives at the head of Foster Hollow, below Elk Run Coal Co.'s Black Castle strip mine.

The Government Organization subcommittee, made up of both delegates and senators, decided in January to get a firsthand look at the blasting that takes place near mountaintop removal sites. But the legislators who took Monday's tour heard no explosions.

Although the panel originally was to tour the Black Castle mine above Foster Hollow, that part of the tour was canceled and no explosions were heard. No representatives of either Elk Run Coal Co. or its parent company, A.T. Massey Coal Co., were present during Monday's tour. Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the mine was on vacation and there were not enough employees available to accommodate a legislative tour.

Judy told the lawmakers that she didn't believe company representatives' explanations that damage to both an old farmhouse and her new "dream house" built nearby in 1991 were the result of the house settling.

"This house was settling. That house was settling," Judy said.

The farm house "was built in 1893. And they're telling me it took it 100 years" to start settling, she said.


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