Strip Mine & Power Plant Threaten Buckhannon, Middle Fork Rivers

Wilderness Waterways Could Be Hit by More Acid Precipitation

By Nathan Fetty

A proposal for a strip mine, combined with a 225-megawatt power plant, could adversely impact the Buckhannon River and Middle Fork River in north-central West Virginia. In addition, particulates from the power plant could create problems for streams in the Dolly Sods and Otter Creek wilderness areas of the Monongahela National Forest.

The project would be at Anker Energy’s Upshur Property site in Upshur County, where Island Creek Coal mined in the1980's with devastating acid mine drainage (AMD) as a result.

Anker’s plan would utilize circulating fluidized bed (CFB) technology for the power plant, allowing the company to burn coal and acid-producing shale on-site with crushed limestone to neutralize the acid. The resulting by-product, a highly alkaline flyash, would be used as backfill to reclaim the land to its approximate original contour. Also, Anker claims that it can burn a large pile of acid- producing waste material left behind by previous mining operations.

In addition, the power plant would be a "co-generation" facility, where the excess steam would be used to power an adjacent manufacturing facility. However, the plan could still go forward even if no manufacturing plant opens on the site. Otherwise, the steam may simply be released into the atmosphere, like that of a conventional power plant.

Last fall, Anker approached several environmental groups to share the company’s plan and solicit feedback. While Anker’s openness about the proposal was refreshing, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, along with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Mountaineer Chapter-Trout Unlimited and local citizens spoke in opposition to the strip mine permit at a public hearing in Buckhannon on March 22, 2000.

Among our questions and concerns:

« Although the mining and power generation plans are said to be new technology, this is more experimentation on a site that is highly susceptible to AMD problems. This is unacceptable, especially when trout streams like Tenmile Creek of Buckhannon and Right Fork of the Middle Fork are likely to be impacted.

« Although the flyash used to negate AMD would be highly alkaline, that doesn’t mean it is without problems. Precise calculations for flyash application are difficult. If the flyash leaks or is over-applied, that could spell trouble for downstream drinking water supplies. We don’t know the public’s cost to pay for treating increased iron, manganese and hardness in drinking water supplies. The City of Buckhannon is already paying additionally to treat water for problems stemming from the Upshur Property.

« EPA recently considered regulating flyash and other coal combustion wastes as hazardous. These wastes can cause fish kills and amphibian deformities. Also, such waste materials contain concentrated levels of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and cadmium; radioactive elements; cancer causing organic compounds and other contaminants. The Hoosier Environmental Council (Indiana) has found 63 cases of power plant wastes contaminating ground and surface water supplies beyond any use. Over 38 research studies have documented deformities, hormonal problems, genetic damage, and death in plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles and/or mammals from power plant wastes.

« There are special concerns with mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that contaminates food supplies, especially fish. Such a poisonous substance will likely become a bigger issue with coal-fired power plants as regulators begin to recognize problems beyond acid deposition.

« The power plant would require two and a half tons of limestone for every ton of fuel. That limestone will likely come from quarries in eastern West Virginia, where such extraction can be intensely damaging to land, groundwater supplies and surface water. This encourages extraction of one non-renewable resource to enable extraction of another non-renewable resource. Additionally, an upgraded highway has been proposed along the Middle Fork River to truck in the limestone, impacting a popular whitewater boating and angling waterway.

« The Dolly Sods and Otter Creek wilderness areas in the Monongahela National Forest are already at acid precipitation thresholds. The Upshur County plant, which is in the wind path of these sensitive areas, could push the health of these streams over the edge.

« Anker officials have noted that the manufacturing facility could provide upwards of 500 jobs, which is a key factor in local officials’ support of the plan. The company has noted that the jobs would, ideally, be high-paying, high- skilled, and that the manufacturing facility would be environmentally friendly. But there is no guarantee that any of these goals will be realized.

Currently, Anker has hired an independent consultant selected by the environmental community to evaluate the strip mining proposal, before the mining permit is granted or denied. Similar studies of the air pollution permit and the economic feasibility of Anker’s plan to sell electricity to the power grid are being looked into. We’ll be tracking developments in the coming months and calling on YOU to speak up for these wonderful rivers and streams, and the communities and recreation they support.

Nathan Fetty is a program associate with West Virginia Rivers Coalition.