‘Coal mine’ stalls small Virginia airport runway’s takeoff

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GRUNDY, Va. — Officials from two Southwestern Virginia counties say a project vital to the area’s economic development has been held up for years because of a dispute with federal regulators over what is an airport and what is a coal mine.

Local leaders say the three-year battle with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining over plans to extend the runway at Grundy Municipal Airport has cost taxpayers in this poverty-stricken corner of Appalachia millions of dollars in lost opportunities, and a list of regulatory hurdles remains before construction can even begin.

“We were attempting to permit this project as an airport project, not a coal-mining project,” said state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, a Democrat from Lebanon who has been involved for three years with the effort to lengthen the runway from 2,200 feet to more than 5,000 feet — the length needed to comply with insurance standards for corporate jets. The holdup: Federal regulators have refused to allow the runway project to go forward without a mining permit because of the coal deposits below the land that will be dug up during construction.

“That’s where the permitting process got caught up — in determining whether it was an airport project or a mining project, by the Office of Surface Mining in Washington,” Mr. Puckett said. “We’ve tried to resolve that with them for the last couple of years. We’ve had very little success.”

Regulators contend that a mining permit is needed because local authorities plan to sell the coal dug up in extending the runway to help finance the overall project. The Office of Surface Mining said it “will continue to work with the state, as well as other affected local and federal officials, regarding the best way to proceed with the proposed airport expansion.”

Yet the impasse remains.

Donnie Rife is chairman of the Dickenson County Board of Supervisors and a member of the Breaks Regional Airport Authority, the regional entity working on the project. He said it might be tough to explain the nuances to federal regulators, but “there’s a huge difference in mining coal and building an airport.”

Mining is involved, he said, because the area’s severe topography makes construction impossible otherwise in the hilly terrain. The original airport was built on a piece of land made flat by surface mining by United Coal Co., which gave the land to Grundy.

“Our area around here is really unique, and one thing we don’t have back here is level land,” he said. “If it weren’t for the mining going on here, I don’t think that we’d have any of our community colleges, we wouldn’t have UVa.-Wise, and I don’t know if we’d have half of the city of Norton or the town of Wise.”

Mr. Rife said the delay has cost an estimated $20 million. Three years ago, he said, the coal that underlies the runway site would have sold for a higher price, helping offset the cost of what could be a $60 million project. He said the lengthened runway is crucial to the region’s plans to attract business and investment.

It’s important for jets to be able to land and take off from Grundy because, for economic-development prospects — businesses that might locate in the area — air travel is the only efficient way to get there. The 43-year-old facility is the only airport in Buchanan County.

“Most of the time, they fly into Abingdon, and you’re talking about [a drive of] an hour and a half, at least,” said Tim Potter, who heads the industrial development authority in Grundy, which is more than 50 miles on mountain roads from the nearest interstate highway. “It’s not convenient.”

Now, Buchanan County has something to show off to visitors: a glittering new 1,200-acre mixed-use business park built on a nearby mountaintop also flattened by mining.

The town, with creative financing and an infusion of federal flood-control dollars, has remade itself as a retail destination. Local economic development officials are hopeful that the business sites they offer will lure more companies to locate in Buchanan County — but first, investors and companies looking to relocate have to see the park.

Bigger plans

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