BLAIR - In 1996, Ashland Coal officials added a 20-story-tall, earth-moving machine to the army of giant shovels and trucks at the Dal-Tex mountaintop removal mine.
The cranelike machine, called a dragline, digs rock and earth off coal reserves faster and more cheaply than smaller shovels and dozers.
The dragline also created more problems for nearby Logan County communities. Ashland subsidiary Hobet Mining blasted apart much larger sections of rock and earth to feed the huge dragline bucket. The company ran the dragline around the clock to make the most of its multimillion-dollar investment.
Former Blair resident Tommy Moore said the dust was like "a constant haze all the time" over the community.
"I've seen times where vehicles driving down the road would have to turn on headlights during the day," Moore said during a July 1998 deposition.
State regulators and company managers were slow to take steps to protect the community from blasting and dust problems, according to a review of public records and sworn statements from coal company officials.
Among the findings from the review: s In May 1996, instead of ordering the dust eliminated, the state Division of Environmental Protection signed an agreement that allowed Dal-Tex to pay a $2,000 fine every time the company sent excess dust into the community.
When agency inspectors repeatedly fined Hobet Mining, company officials appealed the penalties to the state Surface Mine Board s In a June 1997 appeal, company lawyers from the firm Jackson & Kelly told the mine board that monitoring data showed the dust didn't come from the mines.
Terah Burdette, who ran Hobet's monitoring program, told the mine board that the dust was really pollen and mold spores. In a July 1998 deposition, Burdette acknowledged that the data did not show that at all s Repeatedly, Arch Coal, successor to Ashland Coal as Hobet's parent firm, has publicized steps it took to protect Blair residents from mine blasting. But company officials testified that they don't believe negative impacts from mining can be eliminated.
"There was never a direction or an attempt to eliminate," testified John McDaniel, chief engineer for Hobet Mining. "You can minimize it, but you can't put it to zero." Citizen complaints Since 1996, citizens have complained about blasting and dust from Dal-Tex more than 200 times.
DEP inspectors have cited the mine for dust and blasting violations 92 times in the last three years, according to computer records from the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation.
In July, McDaniel testified that he believed the citizen complaints were, "a method to maneuver the regulatory agencies into putting leverage on the companies.
"Well, the regulatory agencies are sensitive, and I think a political body, and they are subject to outside pressure," McDaniel said.
In March 1996, the company filed the first in a series of legal challenges to DEP's dust citations. Jackson & Kelly lawyers told the mine board that DEP inspectors couldn't prove that Dal-Tex violated any legal dust limits, or caused any health or environmental problems in Blair.
After a hearing the following month, DEP agreed to settle the case, and Hobet Mining's lawyers withdrew their appeal. DEP officials did not press the case, because state regulations don't contain a specific limit for mine dust. Still, they hoped the settlement would put some kind of restrictions on Dal-Tex.
Under the settlement, Hobet Mining would monitor its dust emissions.
If it exceeded limits normally applied to chemical factories and power plants, the company would pay a $2,000 fine for each violation.
During the hearing, board member Tom Michael said he thought the settlement was too generous.
"It sounds like they can willfully violate [the dust limit] and they're still in compliance with the agreement," said Michael, a Clarksburg lawyer and environmentalist. "What I'm afraid of is, you're going to say, 'We need to blast this out of here. We know it's going to create dust. Write the check for $2,000 and go do it.'" Complaints about dust continued. Mostly, Hobet Mining promised to continue studying their blasts and to look for ways to avoid dust problems.
Last week, Arch Coal Vice President David Todd said the company also installed a water spray in its dragline and stopped blasting when the wind blew toward Blair.
"We had some dust problems, absolutely," Todd said. "We've tried damned hard to fix them." In a deposition in May 1998, Dal-Tex blasting supervisor Tommy Preece said he was seldom told when the company was cited for dust problems.
Preece also testified that the company's weather station didn't help eliminate blasting when the wind was blowing toward Blair. "It tells you the wind is blowing in one direction, and it wasn't," he said.
Mold spores and pollen In 1996 and 1997, complaints about blasting and dust from Dal-Tex skyrocketed. DEP inspectors cited the mine 56 times for violating the settlement agreement.
In May 1997, Jackson & Kelly lawyers filed another appeal. This time, they said that excess dust DEP cited the company for was mold and pollen, not mine dust.
During a June 4, 1997, mine board hearing, Terah Burdette said the company monitored all materials in the air, not just dust from the mine. She said the tests detected "carbonaceous materials," which she defined as pollen and mold spores.