Gazette photo by F. BRIAN FERGUSON
The boom of a dragline mining machine looms over the horizon near the Church of Christ in Blair, Logan County.
By Ken Ward Jr.
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:
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.
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.
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."
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.
Burdette said that, when the carbonaceous material was subtracted from the dust total, the levels were below the legal limits. So, she said, the mine-related dust was not a violation of the previous settlement agreement.
After the hearing, mine board Chairman John W. Straton gave lawyers for both sides until Aug. 5, 1997, to settle the dispute themselves. The deadline passed, and no settlement was reached.
Nine days later, on Aug. 14, coal company lawyers and DEP submitted a joint motion to drop the appeal. No settlement was ever reached, and neither side would explain the reason the appeal was dropped.
Three days earlier, on the morning of Aug. 11, one of Dal-Tex's blasts sent rocks bigger than softballs sailing more than 1,000 feet into the yard of one of the Moore's neighbors, Carlos Gore.
On Aug. 15, citizen activists and news reporters visited Blair. They listened to Gore and his neighbors as part of the three-day tour sponsored by the DEP Office of Environmental Advocate.
After the tour, DEP ordered Hobet Mining to stop blasting within 2,000 feet of homes. Normally, coal companies can blast up to 300 feet from homes. DEP later backed off, and allowed Hobet to blast within 2,000 feet of homes if the company limited the size of the blasts.
Darcy White, who supervises inspectors at DEP's Logan field office, said the agency doesn't get many complaints anymore about dust from Dal-Tex. White said she didn't think the number of complaints dropped because the number of people who live in Blair has dropped.
Milligrams and micrograms
In September 1997, Tommy Moore and his wife, Victoria, sued Hobet Mining. They alleged the company's mine blasts and dust forced them and their neighbors to move from Blair.
In June and July 1998, the Moores' lawyers questioned Terah Burdette as part of the lawsuit.
This time, Burdette acknowledged that the company monitoring data, from a contracted lab called R.J. Lee Group, did not prove the dust was mostly pollen and mold spores, rather than mine dust.
Under questioning by Patrick McGinley, one of the Moores' lawyers, Burdette also said that her reports to the mine board underestimated the amount of dust. Burdette converted dust concentrations from milligrams to micrograms by multiplying by 100, instead of by 1,000. There are 1,000 micrograms in 1 milligram.
After they questioned Burdette, the Moores' lawyers filed court papers which alleged that company officials, "knew their dust monitoring program could not and did not produce accurate data ..."
The court motions also alleged that, "Hobet knowingly employed a person to implement the dust monitoring program who had no prior experience and who knowingly gave false testimony to the Surface Mine Board regarding the data collected from that dust monitoring program."
Hobet Mining never filed a response to those allegations. The Moores' case was settled in early September. Last week, Harvey, a lawyer for Hobet, declined comment.
The future of Blair
Today, Arch Coal wants to expand Dal-Tex. On Nov. 3, DEP Director Michael Miano issued a permit to allow Hobet Mining to strip another 3,100 acres along Pigeonroost Branch.
James Weekley, 58, has lived along Pigeonroost Branch all of his life. He doesn't want the company to mine the area.
In July, Arch Coal lawyer Blair Gardner visited Weekley's home. Gardner said the company would be happy to buy out Weekley and his mother, who lives just up the road. Weekley told Gardner he didn't want to sell.
"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. Why? Why? Why?"
Gardner replied, "The reason, Mr. Weekley, is that we have a resource that is valuable and that the market wants. That is coal."
For now, Arch Coal's plans to expand Dal-Tex are blocked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In late October, EPA held a public hearing on the mine. Hundreds of people, mostly coal industry supporters, turned out.
When Victoria Moore walked through the door at the hearing, Dal-Tex General Manager Mark White confronted her. White reminded Moore that, when her family settled their lawsuit against the company, she agreed not to talk about the settlement or to protest against the Pigeonroost Branch permit.
When her turn came, Moore got up to speak anyway.
Moore told the crowd that she tried to get DEP or some other agency to help her family. No one would stop Dal-Tex from blasting rocks and dust into the community, she said.
"Everybody tells us 'you have a problem, but there's nothing we can do,'" Moore said. "'Go hire yourself a lawyer' - that's what you're leaving us to."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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