published Sunday, April 8th, 2012

New era of deep coal mining looms on Walden's Ridge

Harry Hawkins talks about coal mines that are planned in Rhea County, Tenn.
Harry Hawkins talks about coal mines that are planned in Rhea County, Tenn.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

IF YOU GO

What: A public hearing on the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit now under consideration by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will be held at 6 p.m. April 26. At 6:30 p.m. a hearing will be held on permits sought from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

Where: Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tenn.

Who: Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency also will attend.

Source: Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation; U.S. Office of Surface Mining


THE END OF COAL MINING

The end of coal mining in the Sequatchie Valley and most of Southeast Tennessee began with the Dec. 8, 1981, methane gas explosion at Grundy Mining Co.'s No. 21 mine in Marion County that claimed the lives of 13 miners, according to local mining historians.

Former miner Bobby Henry told the Times Free Press about that explosion in 2006 in reaction to an underground blast at the Sago mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., that trapped 13 miners on Jan. 2, 2006.

"The 13 men, the time of year, that's what really got me," Henry said. "There's a lot of similarities with us here."

Henry said his first thought when he heard about the disaster was to pray for the men entombed in the West Virginia mine.

In Tallmansville, W.Va., 13 men were trapped in an explosion that could have been ignited by a lightning strike, officials said. All but one succumbed to carbon monoxide asphyxiation by the time rescuers reached the area where they were trapped, records show.

— Ben Benton


TROUBLE UP TOP

The mining industry -- especially in Appalachia -- has a history of dangerous and combative above-ground problems, too.

The labor problems that haunted West Virginia and upper East Tennessee coal mining in the early part of the 20th century continued to play out in Southern Appalachia in more recent years.

The powerful United Mine Workers of America union, long dominant in the Appalachian Mountains, was challenged in the 1960s by the Southern Labor Union, which was riding the crest of an important legal victory over the United Mine Workers.

In December 1964, almost 66 years to the day after the Nelson Mine explosion, Grundy Mining Co. mine foreman John Higgins was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of a United Mine Workers member in Southeast Tennessee. Higgins was sentenced to 15 years in a state prison by a jury in Jasper, Tenn.

The UMW man, Leonard Layne, was slain on July 15, 1963, near Whitwell, Tenn., at a time when violence flared frequently in the strike-bound coalfields. Two other men, including a Grundy Mining Co. night watchman, were slain "during that summer's reign of terror in the area," a newspaper clipping states.

In years to come, many coal trucks and coal offices were dynamited in the region.

— Pam Sohn


THE MINES

The two deep coal mines planned for Rhea County will be named Liberty and Security. They will be deeper than most at 600 to 1,000 feet deep. The company said they will be safer and more environmentally friendly than the mines of old.


ECONOMIC IMPACT

The mines will employ about 300 people in a county that had an 11.5 percent unemployment rate in January. Annual payroll is estimated at $34 million.


THE PAY

The mining jobs will offer full benefits and pay on average more than $50,000 a year. That compares with Rhea County's median household income of $37,222 in 2010.

Source: Iron Properties

DAYTON, Tenn. -- Harry Hawkins lives a pasture away from the prospective site of the first deep coal mine to be part of Walden's Ridge life in nearly 100 years.

But it won't be new to him, or to many of his Dayton Mountain neighbors in Rhea County.

Hawkins and his family lost two ancestors to huge explosions in the last mines in the county -- the Nelson Mine and the Richland Mine.

"My great-great-grandfather Thomas Lane was killed in the Nelson Mine in 1895, and my great-great-grandfather Lowery Hawkins was killed in 1901 in the Richland Mine blast," Hawkins said. "They were both on my father's side of the family."

In all, the Nelson Mine explosion claimed the lives of 29 men and boys, according to Rhea County historians. And the Richland blast killed 20 miners and injured 10 others.

But Hawkins, a gas pipeline auditor, said he isn't too worried about blasts at the proposed mine.

What he is worried about are the 72 coal trucks a day expected to ply two-lane Dayton Mountain Road when the mines are operating.

"This road can't handle it. It's already got log trucks and quarry trucks, and there's nowhere to go but the ditch [if you meet one on a narrow space]," he said. "It's dangerous."

Deep coal mining has been a not-so-kindly maker of Appalachian history.

In its early years, America was desperate for the coal, and impoverished Appalachian residents were desperate for the jobs. Despite the danger underground, they descended into the darkness every day and emerged with a little more credit at the company stores.

The labor strife that erupted in the early 20th century proved little deterrent to men just trying to earn a living, and the health and environmental problems associated with mining became apparent only in the last half-century.

Deep coal mining has been on the wane for decades as easy-to-reach coal seams were mined out and cleaner, better-paying jobs offered a safer and more prosperous way of life.

But in recent years, Walden's Ridge again has become a target of coal mining companies looking to tap its more elusive coal seams.

Now the 74-mile-long ridge -- sometimes called the Cumberland escarpment because it marks the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau -- is becoming a new battleground in the struggle between environmentally conscious residents and the coal industry.

WORKING TO OPEN

Dave Fortner, a partner in Iron Properties, said his group plans to begin work on two mines on Walden's Ridge near Dayton in the Ogden Road and Upper Cove Loop areas later this year. He says production could begin in late 2013.

Fortner said these mines -- to be named Liberty and Security -- will be deeper than most at 600 to 1,000 deep. He also said they will be far safer and more environmentally friendly than the mines of old. And they will employ about 300 people on an annual payroll of $34 million.

The new mining operation, if permitted by state and federal officials, will serve a new world market, according to Fortner and two business partners: Mark Bartkoski of Integrity Development Consultants and Jason McCoy, a real estate developer and owner of the mine operation and mineral rights.

Bartkoski said permitting is moving quickly, and the company expects to invest more than $150 million in the operation in the next year and a half.

"The regulatory agencies have been tough, as they should be, but cooperative," he said. "And we have a super compliant policy. We're doing things way above what the law asks for. That's not just lip service."

He said company officials have asked for meetings with federal and state regulators, as well as congressional members and the governor's office.

After those meetings, Bartkoski said, the company wants to present its plan to investors.

"We're hoping to have our investors locked down in the next two or three months," he said.

The mining jobs will have full benefits and pay on average more than $50,000 a year, he said. The entire county's population is just over 31,300 people, and with 13,430 people in Rhea County's labor force, unemployment in January was 11.5 percent. The median household income in the county in 2010 was $37,222.

Fortner said the new driver in deep coal mining on Walden's Ridge isn't an American need for coal. In fact, most Appalachian coal for decades has not burned cleanly enough or cheaply enough for use in United States manufacturing or power production. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's newest ruling that will halt any new coal-fired power plant construction without capturing the carbon to be stored underground will not affect these mines or their permitting.

That's because this coal never was intended to be marketed in the U.S.

"The people in China and India are trying to improve their standard of living," Fortner said. "They will buy this coal to make steel there."

"This coal" is metallurgical coal. It is used primarily to make coke -- a hot-burning fuel for steel mills. The coal tar that once lined Chattanooga Creek and still pollutes many Chattanooga sites was a byproduct of burning such coal to make coke for steel mills. Those practices were made uneconomical in the U.S. decades ago as the nation began to adopt environmental controls.

But the new overseas need is bumping up against the comfortable residents near the mining and coal processing site atop Dayton Mountain and near a second mine site at the foot of the mountain in the Cranmore Cove community.

Many in those areas are opposed to the potential change in their lifestyles.

"I will be able to see the mine site [and waste rock pile] and hear it from my house," said Linda Milliron, who with her mother-in-law and husband owns about 200 acres atop the mountain.

"I didn't know what a coal processing plant was until I looked on the Internet. And now I'm just horrified," Milliron said. She said noise, dust and polluted water runoff from the waste rock pile are just a few of her concerns.

"This 200 acres is what I want to leave my children. But now my dream is just gone. Noboby wants to live close to a coal processing plant."

THE COMPANY STORE

"Yesterday was a day that will never be forgotten by the residents of Dayton," reads a December 1898 issue of The Chattanooga News under a headline about an explosion that killed 29 men and boys at the Nelson mine, owned by Dayton Coal and Iron Co.

"The remembrances of the sad scenes witnessed will be carried to the graves of those who will have to submit to the inevitable. In years to come, mothers will tell their children of the awful calamity. ... And for generations the people of Dayton will revere the dark days of the city in December, 1895."

Two years later, the company, centered in Britain, secretly reorganized to avert losses from lawsuits by relatives of miners killed or injured, according to Rhea County history books.

In 1901, the company's second Rhea mine, the Richland Mine, exploded, killing 20 and injuring 10 others -- some of whom would die days later.

The Dayton mines weren't the only Southeast Tennessee shafts to blow up in those days and even in later years of the 20th century.

Even in the past decade, the occupation remained dangerous. The U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration data show fatality rates for coal mines increased by 38 percent between 2002 and 2010, while the coal miner injury rate declined by 43 percent over the same period.

In 2010, the U.S. had 135,500 coal miners. The coal mine injury and fatality rates are calculated by the number of injuries per 200,000 hours worked, according to the administration.

And although the U.S. Congress in 1969 ordered black lung to be eradicated from the coal industry, data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicates that 1,500 former coal miners still die of the disease each year, according to the United Mine Workers. Last year, the disease was reported on the rise again.

Records also show that citations and oversight orders for coal mines increased by 69 percent between 2004 and 2010.

Environmental problems from both deep and strip mines continue to surface.

State-funded reclamation work continued into the 2000s on abandoned mine sites on Walden's Ridge, including Signal Mountain.

MINING OVERSIGHT

Fortner and Bartkoski expect to have the new Liberty and Security mines permitted in July. State and federal officials are less committal.

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials say most of the mining regulatory authority for the proposed operation lies with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining. But the mines must receive water quality permits from the state.

"The permits are currently in the application stage, and it will be some time before decisions are made," TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said.

Earl Bandy Jr., the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Field Office director in Knoxville, said federal authorities have completed the first "technical review" of the proposed permits for the Iron Properties' applications.

Bandy said there are 15 active coal mines in Tennessee, five of them deep mines and 10 surface operations.

He also said there are 10 pending permits under consideration in Tennessee, four for deep mines and six for surface operations.

Not all of the permits sought and granted result in a mine operating.

At least one of those mines permitted but not operating also is on Walden's Ridge.

Federal officials say the Abingdon, Va.-based Highlands Land Co. obtained an exploration permit in 2006, the only permit issued in the last 10 years for coal-related work on Walden's Ridge.

Johnny Greer, an attorney for Highlands, said in 2006 that the company's exploration on the Bledsoe-Hamilton County line was in response to increasing demand for coal exportation. That location is just a few miles south of Rhea County's proposed sites along the Sewanee coal seam.

After the permits were issued, Highlands sought investors and talked to reporters about the planned mine.

But it never happened.

The permit for core drilling had drawn fire from Bledsoe County members of the former Save Our Cumberland Mountains group, an organization that opposes coal mining, especially mountaintop removal and strip mining. SOCM's new name is Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, but its nickname remains the same.

Members of the group had said they were worried about acidic runoff from the rock coal Highlands would remove to get to the coal seam.

COMMUNITY ATTITUDES

Harry Hawkins, whose ancestors died in the Nelson and Richland mines, said he's not opposed to the mines.

"We need jobs here," he said, echoing a number of other Rhea County residents. "It's just the road I worry about."

But a recent Dayton Mountain community residents meeting brought out 75 to 80 residents who were very concerned.

Among them was Chanda Taylor, Linda Milliron's daughter.

"It just seems like everything's been done undercover and quickly," she said. "SOCM has told us that these permits usually take years."

Taylor said she had contacted members of that group and asked that they come to the community meeting.

SOCM member and past president Wanda Hodge, of Bledsoe County, attended the meeting, along with group organizer Ann League.

Hodge said SOCM won't get involved in the Dayton mines issue until Rhea residents near the mine sites make a formal request for the organization's help and its board agrees to take it on.

"They will have to form their own SOCM chapter, raise some money and elect officers," said Hodge, whose community and chapter of the group fought the Bledsoe mining attempt.

"SOCM hasn't really dealt with deep mines before. It will be a whole new learning curve for us, too," Hodge said.

County Commissioner Ronnie Raper said he also has concerns about the safety of the road with so many more trucks on it.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation is aware of those concerns, according to department spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn.

"Our project manager Chester Sutherland told them that an official request from Rhea County officials would need to be sent to our headquarters office requesting that a study be done on the roads near the coal mine," she said. "This is the first step that must be taken for any improvements to be made to the routes, as this project is not in our plans."

Taylor and Milliron say road improvements would help, but they want the mining plans stopped or changed so that work doesn't affect Dayton Mountain and Dayton-area living.

Taylor, now a Dayton Mountain mother of three, recalled that in college she took a course that required her to research and write a paper about mining. Now she says her recollection of that research is unsettling.

"If it's not illegal, they're going to permit it," she said of regulators. "It doesn't matter how many people are against it.

"The beauty, the mountain, it's not quantifiable for them," she said.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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