Julia Roberts Goad
A meeting to share information as well as to get input from the public about the King Coal Highway was held Monday at Mingo Central High School.
Mingo County residents, along with local, state and federal officials gathered to address issues regarding the combining of the highway department’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Study of the 94 mile long King Coal Highway corridor with Consol’s proposed Buffalo Mountain surface mine.
The end result, if permitted, will allow future highway construction to occur on flat land created by a surface mining operation.
Prior to hearing from several speakers, an informational workshop was conducted by Gregory L. Bailey, P.E. Director, Engineering Division of the West Virginia Division of Highways and Emiliano Lopez, Assistant Division Administrator Federal Highway Administration West Virginia Division.
The KCH was estimated to cost $198.8 million. However, using a private-public partnership, has brought the cost down to $88 million.
At a prior meeting, Greg Bailey, Director of Engineering at the West Virginia Department of Highways, explained that the portion of the highway that has been completed would not have been built without the private-public partnership of coal companies, the state of West Virginia and the MCRA.
Bailey said that the highway budget for West Virginia has steadily decreased in the past five or six years, and the $110 million savings that would be seen using the private-public partnership to mine the land and build the highway makes the project possible.
“Under the budget proposed in Washington, the budget for the entire W.Va. highway department would be $500 million,” he explained. “In West Virginia, $110 million is a huge financial impact.
The highway will run through McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Wyoming and Wayne Counties along currently existing US Route 52. The highway will It ultimately will cover approximately 90 miles of southern West Virginia.
One of the speakers at the meeting, West Virginia Senator H. Truman Chafin, said the KCH is key to development of southern West Virginia.
“This private venture will complete the Buffalo Mountain surface project and will provide important social and economic benefits to southwestern West Virginia communities,” Chafin said. “It will reduce emergency response times, increase roadway safety, relieve congestion, increase recreational opportunities in the region and minimize overall environmental impacts that could occur if the two projects were done independently.”
U.S. Congressman Nick Joe Rahall said a block by the EPA would do more than stop the development of a coal mine.
“It will block opportunities for decades to come,” Rahall said. “The discussion comes down to a simple question: Do we want to continue to pursue a brighter, economically viable future for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren here in Mingo County, or do we want to give up on that dream?”
Rahall said opening up southern West Virginia will put the area on the map of today’s global economy.
“Modern highways are vital to connecting our families and our businesses with the vast marketplace and opportunities that exist beyond our borders,” Rahall said. “We have seen the growth that comes with new highways in every corner of this state. This is our time. This highway is our right! If we allow this project to be halted, we turn our backs on all those who came before and sacrificed for us, and we fail our children.”
The KCH is a major project for the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority (MCRA). Steve Kominar, Executive Director for MCRA, noted that the Authority’s mission is to provide opportunities for the future of Mingo County, and that means diversification.
“The creation of developable land will facilitate the Redevelopment Authority’s ability to better diversify our rural economy,” Kominar said. “Not only will the proposed highway facilitate safer inter-state travel and commerce, but its construction as a post mine land use project will produce significant savings to the taxpaying public.”
Kominar said that although an alternative plan being proposed by the EPA , that plan would not allow any developable property on this project, and so not supported by MCRA.
“This is a 14 year plan and we are encouraged by Consol’s commitment in these troubling times for the coal industry,” Kominar said. “There will be developable land to assure future pportunities for generations to come.”
“This project falls directly in line with the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority’s post mine land use initiatives,” said Leahsa Johnson, Deputy Executive Director of MCRA. We have partnered with Consol Energy, Cotiga Development and the regulatory agencies to support this permit application, not only in a mining capacity, but also as it pertains to Mingo County’s Land Use Master Plan, the potential for construction of another section of the newly named Mike Whitt Visionary Leadership Highway in Mingo County, and the proposed creation of additional flat land which is vital to our future economic diversification efforts.”
Among others who spoke in support of the project were Mingo County Commission President John Mark Hubbard, State Delegates Justin Marcum and Harry K. White and a spokesperson for Sustainable Williamson.
Some citizens expressed concerns that the highway will worsen flooding problems that have become an issue in the past few years. But the overwhelming majority of those in attendance said they support the project, and the coal industry in southern West Virginia.
Sen. Art Kirkendoll talked about the importance of coal.
“Just let us mine coal,” Kirkendoll implored. “We are challenged in everything we do in southern West Virginia. We’re asking you to give us an opportunity to have jobs.”