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Published: Sunday, December 16, 1990
Page: P1C

Big John and Lil' John move mountains and fill valleys.

Mountaintop-removal mining, as the term suggests, decapitates entire mountaintops. Big machines are reshaping the face of Southern Appalachia.

Explosives, draglines, electric shovels and bulldozers move earth and rocks to expose coal. Giant trucks dump the resulting "OVERBURDEN" DOWN HILLSIDES INTO NARROW HOLLOWS. THOSE "VALLEY fills" are the largest earth and rock structures east of the Mississippi.

Huge valley fills, environmentalists warn, could someday cause major safety problems in the coalfields.

Mountaintop removal mining recovers two, three and often more coal seams. Near the town of Sharples in Logan County, United Coal is unearthing 14 different coal seams in a single mountain.

When people think of strip mining, many conjure up images of contour stripping, where bulldozers create flat mine benches high up on mountainsides to expose coal seams. Or they think of augering, where large drills bore coal out of exposed seams, like a drill.

In the 1990s, mountaintop removal will dominate surface mining in West Virginia and the East.

Mountaintop removal is productive. It helps West Virginia compete in a tight marketplace. Some Western seams are 100 feet thick.

Mountaintop removal mines are long-term operations - attractive z economic propositions to depressed areas. Companies like Hobet Mining, which owns Big John, guarantee good jobs for decades.

The typical miner at Hobet is a member of the United Mine Workers and earns nearly $40,000 a year.

The technique was originally developed in West Virginia during the 1970s. Draglines, already used on the flat and gently rolling terrain in the Midwest and the West, were brought into the mountains Big John is dwarfed by some of his flatland cousins. Big John's bucket holds 72 cubic yards of earth. American Electric Power's Big.

Muskie, the biggest dragline in the world, swings its 220-yard bucket near Zanesville, Ohio.

Last year, multiple-seam mining accounted for 20 million tons of the 39 million tons of surface-mined coal in West Virginia. Not all.

multiple-seam mines are mountaintop removal jobs. Most multiple seam mines, especially in the southern coal counties, are.

Local groups are springing up to oppose some mountaintop removal mines. Since early 1989, Citizens to Save Campbells Creek has battled Appalachian Mining, a Kentucky coal company. Appalachian Mining's mine near Five Mile is visible to air travelers approaching Charleston from the northeast. While the Capitol's gold dome comes into view, the Five Mile mine sits in the foreground - a brown gash across the mountains.

Washington lawyer L. Thomas Galloway said environmental groups oppose the whole concept of mountaintop removal. "This method of extraction mutilates mountains. It forever destroys the natural heritage of entire ridges in the Appalachian chain." Galloway also questions the process of shoving the huge masses of earth and rock into valleys. "These valley fills could become unstable as water saturates them over the years. We won't know for 30 or 40 years," Galloway said.

Kenneth G. Woodring, an Ashland Coal vice president, said, "I am not personally aware of any valley fills that failed. I would not have any concern living at the toe of a valley fill. If they are properly designed and constructed, I don't think there is any potential for failure." Ben Greene, president of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association, challenges environmentalists to identify a single valley fill that has failed in West Virginia.

Most observers agree Hobet Mining operates two of the best mountaintop removal mines in the state. In 1977, Ashland Oil bought Hobet and decided to make long-term investments in Boone and Logan counties.

Over the last decade, Hobet's trucks and bulldozers have constructed 30 valley fills near Julian in Boone County. Today, the mine office sits on top of one. Trees already cover another old valley fill near the office building.

Big John, the dragline, began arriving in Boone County 1982..

Bucyrus Erie spent nine months manufacturing the 4,000-ton machine at its factory. Hobet spent another 15 months assembling the parts as they arrived at the mine.

Big John began mining in March 1983. The dragline moves earth and rock around the clock, three shifts a day, seven days a week.

Big John shuts down twice a year - for a holiday on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and for two weeks of maintenance during the summer Big John's boom reaches 325 feet into the sky. His circular base is 66 feet in diameter. If Big John stood on the goal line of a 100-yard football field, he could pick up dirt from the opposite goal line, swing it around 180 degrees and dump it down the distance of another football field away.

One mistake by its operator could shut the mine down for months.

Raymond Smallwood, president of Hobet, picks and trains dragline operators carefully.

Big John will be working in the mountains between Julian and Madison well into the next century - perhaps for another generation.

Big John is leaving behind a trail of changed topography.

Woodring said, "There will be a modified terrain, gentler relief.

The total relief will be 200 feet, not the 700 feet we started with ." When mining expands into a new area at Hobet No. 21, Lil' John is the first to arrive. An electric shovel, Lil' John uncovers the Five Block seam and in some locations, the Middle Kittanning.

End loaders and 170-ton dump trucks haul the coal and refuse away, leaving a huge bench for Big John, who travels about 10 months behind Little John.

Big John moves up and down the bench on a path 120 feet wide, scooping up earth and rock, depositing in on areas already mined.

As Big John eats away at the mountain, endloaders and trucks move in.

This time, they carry away the Stockton seam to conveyors that carry the coal to a cleaning plant 5 miles away.

When all the coal is dug, regrading and seeding begin. Hobet.

stocks ring-necked pheasant and grouse. Wild turkey, ducks, deer and bear roam the reclaimed areas.

Companies with millions to invest like mountaintop removal mining. Hobet spent $80 million to develop No. 21. Big John alone cost $25 million.

Once the investment is made and the equipment is in place, the mine is productive. The technique also makes efficient use of reserves, extracting nearly 100 percent of a coal seam.

Last year, the average West Virginia underground miner produced.

24.5 tons of coal a day. The average surface miner produced 40.5 tons a day, according to the Division of Energy.

Woodring said the Hobet mines, and most major mountaintop removal mines, are close to that average, or a little higher.

Environmental critics and some federal officials believe mountaintop removal mines are not regulated strictly enough.

They point out that DOE is perennially short of inspectors and technical people.

Galloway believes the state's surface mining regulations are antiquated - tailored to less sophisticated mining technologies.

In a study conducted last spring, the U.S. Office of Surface.

Mining discovered major problems at several mountaintop removal mines.

At mine after mine, federal inspectors learned DOE failed to .

require proper engineering studies to prove that planned valley fills would be stable.

For example, OSM investigators found DOE accepted core-drilling data from United Coal, when some of that data came from an area half a mile away from the mine.

Federal inspectors also visits a 142-acre permit in Logan County granted to F.G.M. Coal in August 1988. One year later, the company abandoned the operation without reclaiming anything.

After the federal inspections, DOE issued notices of violation to several of the companies. The biggest problems were at Cannelton Industries mines on the border of Kanawha and Fayette counties.

Morgantown lawyer Tom Rodd believes that the problem with mountaintop removal mining is broader than specific deficiencies at individual mines. "I think the fundamental question is - where do we draw the line?

"Almost every hollow and every mountain in large parts of West.

Virginia could be flattened, economically, and turned into what looks like a site for a shopping center," Rodd said. "According to the industry's attitude, there is no reason why they should not level every mountain.

"I think that is unacceptable that an entire region is going to.

be subject to this type of reshaping," Rodd said. "The industry is poorly regulated. The DOE has a paucity of staff and technical skills. It is sheer stupidity to think things are being done.

according to proper engineering standards. Companies can cut corners all over the place. There is no accountability." Woodring and National Coal Association President Richard Lawson sees coal as critical to insulating the nation from political turmoil, especially in the oil fields of the Middle East. Modern mining technology, such as mountaintop removal mining and longwall mining, is essential to the coal industry's health.

"The bottom line is this," Lawson recently wrote. "Energy is an essential ingredient in bringing stability and peace to the economic and political chaos currently confronting the world community.

"Greater use of U.S. coal offers a viable and secure option in meeting the world's growing energy needs in an environmentally acceptable manner - and ultimately can help nations everywhere realize the universal desire for peace, prosperity and national security," Lawson stated.

Rodd focuses more narrowly - on the immediate and long-term interests of West Virginia and its people.

"FLY OVER THE HILLS IN A 40-MILE RADIUS FROM CHARLESTON. JUST about every one of those beautiful hills is a target," Rodd said.

"SOCIETY IN GENERAL DOES NOT MAKE THE DECISION AS TO WHICH HILLS will be leveled. The decision is being made by impersonal market forces, forces which do not consider the long-term well-being and usefulness of the land.

"MINING WILL CONTINUE WHEREVER COAL COMPANIES CAN BUY THEIR WAY in and carve the mountains off," Rodd said. "That is a pretty stupid way to make decisions."

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