More Questions for Mine Testing Facility

By Ellie Bell

The Highlands Voice, May 2019, mentioned that a branch of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institute of Occupational Safety (NIOSH), is exploring a plan to relocate the Underground Mine Safety Research Facility from the Lake Lynn Experimental Mine near Pittsburgh to a property that borders Snowshoe Mountain Resort and the Monongahela National Forest. NIOSH wants to use the facility for studies and research on mine explosions, mine seals, mine rescue, ventilation, diesel exhaust, new health and safety technologies, ground control, and fire suppression. The proposed project includes an aboveground fire suppression facility and an underground mine. 

The May 2019 Voice article summarized some of the big issues that were necessary to address in the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). These issues included conducting groundwater and surface water studies including trout stream impacts, surveying the property for caves, sink-holes, seeps, wetlands, and springs, forecasting the potential for invasive species and considering the impacts to recreation and tourism.

The Government Services Administration (GSA) is expecting to have a public meeting by “late January or February” to present the new information gathered from environmental surveys in response to public comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The meeting may correspond with the release of the final Environmental Impact Statement. So, as we wait, I would like to point out some large impacts that can be deduced from the limited information in the DEIS and from the perspective of a neighbor to the facility. These impacts were included in my comments on the DEIS, so they should be addressed in the final EIS. 

There are a few details about the history and the geology that are necessary to know first. The location of the 461 acre property entrance is almost four miles from the Snowshoe entrance at the Randolph/Pocahontas County Line on Rt. 219. Owned by the Consortium for Silver Creek, the property holds the headwaters of the Tygart Valley River watershed. The region and the property contains karst geology, with sinkholes, caves, fissures, and underground rivers.

One of the biggest concerns for recreation and tourism will be the impact on northern traffic entering Pocahontas County. In the first four months, an average of 116 dump truck loads of excavated material per day will enter and leave the site in addition to the heavy equipment and material deliveries. That’s at least one truck every three minutes traveling on Rt. 219 for four months. After the first four months, there will be 11,600 loads of limestone trucked off the site, averaging sixteen loads per day every day for almost four years. 

Rt. 219 is a main artery for guests to enter Pocahontas County and access Snowshoe from the north and east. If this project coincides with Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) construction the impact could be devastating to the guest experience for tourists entering Pocahontas County.  

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 42 inch natural gas pipeline currently under construction in the region. If both projects are completed as proposed, the edge of the NIOSH site and ACP will be less than 1.5 miles apart. This was significantly mismeasured in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Vibrations of the proposed NIOSH project could upset the already precarious slopes of ACP. Potential gas leaks and explosions related to the ACP are already a legitimate concern among community members, but this project adds a new layer wherein a truly terrifying scenario could unfold if gas from the ACP traveled through the karst limestone caverns and fissures to interact with explosions at the NIOSH facility. 

Residents in the areas directly surrounding the project do not have access to public water systems. Their water comes from wells or natural springs, so this type of project puts the surrounding communities (Mingo, Mace, Dry Branch and potentially others beyond) at risk of losing their drinking water supplies due to pollution or dewatering. Dye tests in the neighboring Elk watershed, less than a mile from the site, were conducted and published by the West Virginia Speleological Survey (Karst Hydrology Atlas of West Virginia, p. 79). The dye from one point was traced to two different major watersheds, both about three miles away. Beyond this map, the groundwater flow is unknown. I have not yet located dye tracing data from the Tygart Valley River watershed. Since the two watersheds contain similar karst features, extensive mapping should be conducted to protect surrounding wells and springs. This would be a sufficient investigation if this were a static project, but the excavation process and the continuous explosions thereafter, present risk of shifts in groundwater cavities changing quantity and quality available in nearby wells and springs in all surrounding watersheds for the life of the facility. This ongoing threat should be addressed. 

I feel that it is important to share these major potential impacts so folks can use them as we judge the level of quality in the final Environmental Impact Statement and as we decide how to react as a community. As a neighbor to the project, I am eager to see how the final EIS addresses these major concerns.