Debate continues over the future of the Coalfields Expressway

If fully funded, the four-lane, 50-mile Coalfields Expressway would run through Wise, Dickenson and Buchanan counties and connect to West Virginia.

Photo Courtesy: Virginia Department of Transportation

POUND, Va. (WYMT/WJHL) - A project 20 years in the making promises to make three Southwest Virginia counties less isolated, but at what cost?

If fully funded, the four-lane, 50-mile Coalfields Expressway would run through Wise, Dickenson and Buchanan counties and connect to West Virginia. When finished, the project would cut the four-and-a-half hour drive from Pound to Beckley down to just two-and-a-half hours.

The Virginia Department of Transportation says the road will improve safety and also bring with it nearly 30,000 jobs during construction and a $4.1 billion economic impact to the Commonwealth of Virginia. VDOT says through public hearings and comments, people and elected officials have overwhelmingly voiced their support.

"The purpose and need is for social and economic development," VDOT Coalfields Expressway Program Manager Amanda Cox said. "This roadway's going to bring jobs. It's going to bring economic development. It will provide people with access to education, health and jobs. It will decrease their travel time. It will be a safer roadway."

The state paints the project as a saving grace for Coal Country, but not everyone thinks it's a road to recovery.

Pound business owner and former Merchants Association President Harold Greer says his town is a quieter place these days.

"We've had the coal crash," Greer said. "That definitely has made a difference. With as many miners being laid off as there are now, people simply do not have disposable income."

Greer admits businesses in Pound need a boost, but he doesn't think a road is the answer.

"It will only help if the coal industry comes back and it will only help the town if we get access to it," Greer said. "That's the whole issue."

Greer and others fear the Coalfields Expressway will bypass the town and that is just where some of their worries begin.

Tim Mullins is scared. The Wise County resident and Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards member is afraid when crews build the road, his beloved mountains will suffer.

"It is pretty up here," Mullins said of his mother's land that's been in the family for 100 years. "It's peaceful...Not when they start blasting."

Mullins says the road will come right through his mother's property. His mom supports the Coalfields Expressway. He, however, does not, especially now that the path of the road has changed.

"(I'm concerned about) what it does to the environment and the health of people," Mullins said.

The new route, which at points was moved two to three miles from the original path, may impact fewer homes, but VDOT estimates the change could impact two more churches than before, two more cemeteries, 8.4 more stream miles, 35.6 more acres of wetlands and 1,288 more acres of forest.

"I've not really thought of anything good about (the project)," Mullins said. "I'm stuck on the mountaintop removal part."

He knows when VDOT builds the road crews won't do it alone. Alpha Natural Resources and Pioneer Group, now Rapoca, will help. The local coal companies signed on in 2006, a year after VDOT realized the original project would be too expensive. VDOT says the coal synergy partnership saved the project and will reduce the cost by 45% from $5.1 billion to $2.8.

"We have large equipment, we're used to running seven days a week if necessary, we have experienced people, we can move material cheaply, more cheap than a lot of other people can," Alpha Natural Resources General Manager of Surface Mines in Virginia Gregory Blankenship said. "These counties have lagged behind of development, just because of lack of accessibility. We all want to see (the project), because that's where we and our employees work. They want to live there. They want to raise their families there. They don't want to have to move out and this will really open up these areas to economic development long-term."

The coal company's involvement was the reason why the state changed the proposed path of the Coalfields Expressway in 2007, to among other things, "maximize coal recovery." The partnership is a win-win for Alpha Natural Resources. With its help, crews can prepare the road bed at a cheaper cost, help build a much-needed road for Southwest Virginia and in the process, collect whatever coal they can from their reserves. Blankenship says those are reserves the company planned on mining one day anyway.

"If we're able to maximize in the areas than yes, it saves the taxpayers money because the values of those resources makes it much cheaper to build those roads," Blankenship said. "We were in the business, we were in the area, we had employees, obviously it helps the employees of our industry and of the people who live and work here. When we looked at it, we looked at ways and really part of the public-private partnership was all about trying to save the taxpayers and VDOT money."

But that's not all. The coal synergy approach provides an extra incentive. It puts additional money in the coal company's pockets. Whether VDOT takes the land through negotiations or by the last resort of eminent domain, the coal companies will have extra land to surface mine as part of this project.

"Our priority is to help the region," Blankenship said. "If we mine coal, we'll be able to save money. We're here in the area. We want to provide jobs for the people we have and the other people in the community. We're a company to do business and we have to be profitable, but any proposal that we do to VDOT is a proposal. They have every right and I'm sure they will look at our proposal versus going to other contractors."

"We did this to try and help the road be built," Rapoca President Clyde Stacy said. "Right now there is only one road in Grundy. My thought was not to make money on coal, but to make it cheaper to build by not displacing as many people and having it higher in the mountains makes it better for bigger equipment."

VDOT has heard all of the concerns.

"The department does not know at this stage whether eminent domain will have to be exercised," Cox said. "That will have to be done on a case-by-case basis. Any negotiations with individual landowners will take place. Only if an agreement cannot be met based on certified appraisals would we follow the eminent domain and that's certainly not the route the department would choose."

Cox is also quick to remind you, we wouldn't be talking about the Coalfields Expressway if it weren't for the two coal companies involved. She gets offended when people call it a large surface mining operation. Despite some people's fears, the program manager says bottom line, the coal synergy approach is the best approach. Overall, she says the benefits of the project far outweigh any negatives.

"Yes, there will be reserves that they would have access that they may not have mined in and of themselves, but that is what this coal synergy is all about," Cox said. "If there are reserves within the right of way that they did not already have access to, certainly this would facilitate their access to additional reserves. It would also facilitate cost reductions for the department to build a facility for Southwest Virginia that we would not be able to do otherwise. Not only is it ethical, it's in the public's best interest. VDOT has not changed this road to benefit the coal companies. VDOT is trying to change this road to benefit the community of Southwest Virginia."

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) was governor when this project started gaining steam. He says without coal synergy, the Coalfields Expressway would have become a dead end.

"The only way we're ever going to get the expressway built is going to have to be in partnership with our coal operators," Sen. Warner said.

"Because there's a way where they can mine the coal and then do a lot of the cut throughs to make it a lot cheaper."

As for the impact to the area's beauty, Alpha Natural Resources says it will work to limit any negative impacts.

"Any project, whether it's a shopping center, a mall or a school or road construction or mining have impacts obviously," Blankenship said. "Environmentally, we have to follow those rules and regulations and we're proud of what we do and how we do it to minimize any impacts going forward."

At the moment, VDOT is content with the original environmental impact study okayed by the Federal Highway Administration in 2001 for a different route.

"Right now, it shows that there were not enough significant impacts to justify doing an additional environmental impact statement," Cox said.

Mullins is not convinced.

"I think they need to do an impact study," Mullins said. "I think they need to do an impact study. They need to look at the past at what this does to the environment."

12 years after approving the first environmental impact statement, the Federal Highway Administration will again have the final say. If the Federal Highway Administration moves forward with this project, VDOT says construction could begin on some sections next year. However, it won't be built overnight. Depending on funding, the road won't be finished until 17 to 20 years later and that's optimistic.

Original story from WJHL:

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