NIOSH Comes to Mace, West Virginia

By Cindy Rank

When is a mine not a mine?

Apparently when it’s a hole in the ground carved out of rock to look and act like a mine but used for research purposes rather than production of a product such as coal or limestone.

Let me back up a bit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in collaboration with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), is proposing to provide the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) with a new underground safety research facility in Mace, West Virginia, that would allow full-scale mine experiments and research that accurately simulates an underground mine.

To fulfill the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Congress created an enforcement branch, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and a research branch, NIOSH. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—under the U.S. Department of Labor—is the main federal agency charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation, NIOSH—administered by CDC—is responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related illnesses and injuries. Specifically, the mission of the NIOSH Mining Program is to eliminate mining fatalities, injuries, and illnesses through relevant research and impactful solutions.

NIOSH, and the Bureau of Mines before them, had operated an Underground Safety Research Program at the Lake Lynn Experimental Mine (LLEM), a former limestone mine a short distance north of the West Virginia border in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, from the 1980s until 2013, when a roof fall hindered research and its owner declined offers to renew a long-term lease or for CDC/GSA/NIOSH to buy the land.

CDC began a search for a suitable location to relocate a NIOSH research facility that would allow for full-scale mine experiments and research that accurately simulate an underground mine.

After a long and laborious process and considering several other locations, CDC focused on 461 acres of land in West Virginia and began the process of gathering information about the site for the required Environmental Impact Study (EIS).

Since the Voice reported on the proposal, (May, 2019; February, 2020, and January 2021) there have been public hearings, revisions, and a Final EIS was issued in July 2021.  The FEIS examined the potential environmental impacts of the proposed development including impacts from noise and vibration; geology topography, and soils; water resources; utilities and infrastructure; and biological resources-vegetation and threatened and endangered species.

On October 21, 2021 CDC issued its Record of Decision that it would proceed with the acquisition of property at Mace, WV. 

The property is located to the east of US 219 starting near Mingo Flats in the north to a little south of Mace and extends east and south from the Randolph County community of Mace to a border with Snowshoe Mountain Resort’s Silver Creek section in Pocahontas County. A segment of the tract also borders the Monongahela National Forest, and contains an inactive right-of-way for the state-owned West Virginia Central Railroad.

Access road and surface facilities (offices, parking area, etc.) will be in Randolph County. The underground research facility will straddle the County line between Randolph and Pocahontas.

Referencing the rough map that accompanies this article, the proposed purchase and development area is outlined in red [for online viewers] and fairly identifiable even in black and white hard copy.

The roughly 164,000 Gross Square Feet (GSF) underground safety research facility (i.e., basically a carved out underground area to replicate several types of underground mining), is depicted on the map as a rectangular shape in yellow.

Above-ground facilities include parking, preparation and office space, storage and control facilities (17,000 to 25,000 GSF) are depicted on the map as two baseball diamond shaped areas – one large and one small (blue online). These facilities sit on 5.5 acres. A fence, and improved existing gravel access road add several additional acres of disturbed area bringing the total to about 12 acres.

Underground tests would be conducted twice a week in the underground facility and focus on new technologies to improve the health and safety of the Nation’s underground mining workforce. (e.g., studies and research on mine explosions, mine seals, mine rescue, ventilation, diesel exhaust, new health and safety technologies, ground control, and fire suppression.)

The actual construction of the site with all the invasive sights and sounds that accompany construction activities – i.e., trucks, worker traffic, blasting, drilling, digging – is expected to take four or five years.

Once constructed, the routine operation phase would include a dozen full time employees driving to work during regular daytime hours of 7a.m. to 5 p.m. with additional staff visiting for occasional group conferences and meetings perhaps twice or more a month.

During the review process, there have been many objections and questions from local citizens, environmental groups, the Pocahontas County Commission, and Snowshoe Resort. Concerns have centered on noise, traffic, individual water wells/supplies, water resources in general – of particular importance due to the Karst geology of the area, the location of caves, and headwater streams of the Tygart and Elk Rivers.

The Final EIS attempts to answer some of these concerns but many of those answers continue to exist in a fuzzy, non-committal zone requiring more detail and additional information, commitments, and permitting to come.

A couple notable changes are: 

Trucks Reduced truck traffic on Rt 219 during the 4-5 years of construction is outlined in the FEIS. – Originally some 3/hour and maybe an AVERAGE of 16/day were expected during the initial phase of construction to transport the mined rock to an operating quarry 15 miles south.  As a result of public comments and concern regarding the potential impacts from truck trips, this assumption has been revised. Plans now include the ability to utilize 1/2 to 2/3 of the rock on site for site preparation and for road surfacing as well as being able to store the remaining rock on site in order to limit the number of trucks/day. CDC anticipates materials hauled off-site would occur evenly over the four-year construction period, resulting in an average of 10 dump truck trips per day. 

Fencing An eight-foot-high fence was originally planned to encircle the entire 461 acres. Fencing will now be limited to lining the ~ 1.5 mile newly expanded 20 ft wide access road, and the surface facility areas somewhat centrally located in the northern section of the 461 acres. 

Water Nearby residents rely on individual wells – always at risk of loss, diminution, or pollution when blasting and earth disturbance is done nearby. 

An aquifer test (pump test) indicated that drawing water in the project area did not influence the water levels in monitoring wells. While this test indicated a lack of connectivity, it was not 100% conclusive. As a mitigation measure and “in an abundance of caution and to address public concern”, CDC included extension of the public waterline from the Pocahontas Public Service District from Linwood which gets its supply from Shavers Lake atop Snowshoe Mountain that also enables Snowshoe’s snow making capabilities.

CDC would seek the funding and authority to extend the water line as a first step in the process. But there certainly are no guarantees at this point. 

Unanswered questions and unfinished business remain surrounding:

– Impacts to karst and caves, always a mystery, remain as inconclusive as one might expect.

– Corps permitting for culverts along the improved road, permits for crossing streams, specific construction/storm water permits, groundwater protection plans (no mention of these anywhere), Best Management Practices to be implemented, etc., etc. all remain for future definition.

– The decibel level of the ventilation fan may not interfere with visitors to Snowshoe, but it remains to be seen what impact it may have on the quiet communities nearby

– Documents indicate that discussions are ongoing with WV Department of Environmental Protection as to how digging this hole fits or doesn’t under the purview of the DEP mining program but the documents reviewed don’t indicate resolution of the question.

– Guarantees about water line accessibility and cost to residents who choose to hook up are not fleshed out in the documents pertaining to this phase of the project.  

While its true that no document can tie down every last little detail, there is still a lot of fuzzy wording and somewhat evasive answers about what is to come and how much still needs to be done before actual construction can begin.

Bottom line as I see it, is that this is only the beginning.  Because so much is yet to be finalized beyond this initial step, it’s difficult to predict just when the construction might begin. 


For more detail refer to: [FEIS – Volume I] [FEIS – Volume II] [Record of Decision]