Originally created 10/25/98

Coal mines kick up controversy



ELKINS, W.Va. -- From her living room window, Sarah Hodges once gazed across the Tygart River at a tree-covered hillside. Today, she closes the blinds on a vertical wall of bare rock some 200 feet high.

"I never dreamed that much of it would be gone," she muses. "You look out one day and you see something. The next day it isn't there.

"I see so many people stop there to take pictures," she says, chuckling. "I think they think that's a natural formation."

Nature didn't change the landscape. Century Limestone Inc. did.

The quarry along state Route 33 in northeastern West Virginia has been operating for decades, long before Mrs. Hodges, now 78, moved in next door 23 years ago.

Coal was once king in Appalachia, and strip mining and mountaintop removal still generate the most heat from environmentalists in West Virginia.

But quarries are moving mountains just as dramatically, and much more freely. The federal government doesn't regulate quarries, so state officials pay them little mind.

For now. Things may change if the state Legislature acts on a proposed bill during its session starting in January.

Mrs. Hodges says Century Limestone has been a good neighbor, phoning every time it prepares to blast away another hunk of mountain. The company even sends a worker to stand on her lawn and watch for flying rock.

Blasts come two or three times a week, she says, and only twice has debris rained down on her lawn. There was no damage.

The quarry may be a good neighbor to Mrs. Hodges, but environmentalists see it differently.

"It's ugly," says Jim Kotcon of the West Virginia Environmental Council. "It's a terrible way to bring tourists to the entrance of one of the most popular destinations in West Virginia, the Monongahela National Forest."

Vernon Criss, Century Limestone's president, declines to talk about his operation.

And not all quarry neighbors are as content as Mrs. Hodges.

John Emler, who lives a half-mile from the Bardane Corp.'s Millville Quarry in the state's Eastern Panhandle, says he sleeps with cotton in his ears and a fan running.

"It's extremely loud," Emler says. "They make gigantic noise all through the night. We want some legislation that's going to protect us. It's constant dust and constant noise, over and over and over again."

There are just 100 active quarries covering 10,000 acres -- one for every 30 coal mines in the state -- and unlike coal mines, they are not required to restore the landscape they have gouged away.

"They're a whole different ball game," says Ken Politan, assistant chief of the state's Office of Mining and Reclamation at the Division of Environmental Protection. "They don't have spoil material to backfill. It's almost impractical to reclaim to original contour with quarries. They're working 75- to 90-foot thick seams and when they're done, there is nothing left."

Still, some regulators and environmentalists say it's time for a higher standard. The few regulations applying to quarries were written in 1971 and haven't been updated in more than 15 years.

Bills to impose performance standards and require such things as reclamation plans and pre-blast surveys of surrounding properties surface every year in the Legislature.

Rocky Parsons, DEP assistant chief of operations for mining in northern West Virginia, has been pushing compromise legislation for years and will submit a revised bill in January.

"The environmental lobby fought this bill. It wasn't strict enough for them," Parsons says. "But it's better than nothing. Neither side got just what they wanted."

A key provision would be the right to public hearings before a quarrying permit is issued.

But Tom Degen, an environmental lobbyist, calls it "one of the most lopsided bills I've ever seen as far as giving an interest group whatever they want."

Degen wants a bill that protects residential areas, water quality, pristine areas and endangered species, and that stipulates reclamation of quarried land.

He agrees that the quarriers can't be held entirely to the same reclamation and performance standards as coal mines. But, "they want all the coal exemptions; they just don't want the coal regulations," he says.

Pat Parsons, a lobbyist for the quarriers, insists the bill offers environmentalists a big change -- "about 180 degrees from what they have right now."