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Foes say New River area too special for strip mine

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- Some of the people who have helped turn West Virginia's scenic New River Gorge and the communities around it into a thriving destination for tourists and outdoor adventurers say proposed strip mining could destroy the whole picture.

They planned to gather Tuesday at the headquarters of the state Department of Environmental Protection in Charleston to oppose Frasure Creek Mining's plan for a surface mine less than four miles from Fayetteville. A permit the DEP issued for the project is on appeal.

Frasure Creek has several permit applications either in review or already approved. Together, critics say, they threaten to disturb some 3,662 acres in an area that has spent two decades reinventing itself.

Open Fork No. 2 would also be just seven miles from a new adventure camp and future home of the Boy Scouts national and world jamborees.

Calls to Frasure Creek's Scott Depot headquarters went unanswered late Monday. The company is a subsidiary of India-based Essar and operates seven surface mines in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Frasure Creek's target area is several miles from the boundaries of the New River Gorge National River and the Gauley River National Recreation Area, and DEP spokesman Tom Aluise said the agency doesn't believe the mine will have an adverse effect on either.

The permit area was mined sometime before federal surface mining laws were passed in 1977, Aluise said, and Frasure Creek plans to reclaim six miles of high wall created by those operations and restore natural drainage patterns.

Even under the new scrutiny that it's giving surface mining in West Virginia, Aluise added, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved water quality permits for the project.

None of that matters to Maura Kistler, co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors, a 17-year-old outdoor retailer that specializes in climbing gear but also caters to bikers, hikers and campers.

"It is too big and it is way too close,'' she said.

Though Kistler and others call the proposed mine a mountaintop removal operation, Aluise said the permit is for contour mining.

Mountaintop removal is a highly efficient and destructive form of strip mining that flat-tops mountains by blasting apart ridge tops to expose multiple seams of coal. The rock and other debris is shoved into valleys below, often covering streams.

Frasure Creek's permit would not create valley fills or mine through streams, Aluise said.

The Mountain Health & Heritage Association organized the Charleston protest, with speakers including a doctor worried about health effects and a leader of Coal River Mountain Watch, a group long opposed to mountaintop removal.

Fayetteville "was pretty much boarded up after the last coal boom went bust,'' said Kistler, who launched one of the first businesses to capitalize on what she calls world-class natural resources -- resources so beautiful they're featured on the West Virginia quarter.

"They are an incredible gift to our area, and now we have the amenities built in around those resources -- from the cabins to the restaurants to the zip lines,'' Kistler said. "To come in and jeopardize that for short-term profit for mega corporations is unacceptable.''

Although Fayette County's history is in coal mining, she says, its future is in tourism.

"We are not anti-coal, not one bit. Coal has a place in our energy future for the foreseeable future,'' she said. In this case, however, "the environmental costs, the aesthetic costs are way too high.''

The DEP says Frasure Creek's original permit application drew no objections or requests for public hearing despite being advertised in a local newspaper.

But opposition to the mine has been growing. Last month, residents packed a meeting of the Fayette County Commission, and last week, a public service district that supplies water to 2,000 people raised concerns about well heads within a half-mile of the mine site.

The Register-Herald reported the Page-Kincaid PSD is worried about protecting the primary water supply, locating another source if it's contaminated and replacing supplies if mining activity breaks lines.

"We had a big role in putting that water system in place,'' Commission President Matthew Wender told the newspaper. "Given that it is taxpayer money, we have a responsibility to protect that investment.''

The PSD said Frasure Creek offered to make a $10,000 donation for any permit it receives, the newspaper said. The PSD asked for $10 million but was turned down.

 


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