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‘Coal mine’ stalls small Virginia airport runway’s takeoff
Question of the Day
Modernizing the airport is part of a broader plan to open up this part of Appalachia by developing infrastructure, a concept made possible by the ability to move mountains, thanks to equipment used by the industry that drives the local economy: coal mining. The first miles of a four-lane highway, the Coalfields Expressway, already are taking shape, thanks to public-private partnerships with two mining companies. Mr. Rife said the airport is a key piece of the region’s economic development plan.
Ironically, it is the coal that underlies the airport site that is causing the delay. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy initially approved the airport authority’s proposal, spokesman Mike Abbott said.
The mining department determined that the project was exempt from the need for a mining permit, including a government-financed exemption, which applies to government-financed projects and an Abandoned Mine Land Enhancement grant, which applies to projects where the coal removed is “incidental” to reclaiming the land and removal is necessary to address other hazards.
Mr. Puckett said that under an initial public-private partnership, Alpha Natural Resources, a Southwest Virginia-based coal company, would bring the runway to rough grade and, in the process, mine the site and reclaim a dangerous highwall — a clifflike scar left on the landscape by previous mining.
Ted Pile, spokesman for Alpha, said the company would have lowered the mountain beneath the airport’s existing site, creating enough flat land to extend the 2,200-foot runway to 5,700 feet. But the Office of Surface Mining, which operates in the U.S. Department of the Interior and has the right to review projects involving abandoned mine properties, balked.
Mr. Abbott said Office of Surface Mining officials continued to ask for more information, questioning whether a portion of the project met the Abandoned Mine Land grant criteria, and “also raised questions concerning the ‘engineering necessity’ or removing coal in order to build and expand the airport.”
Mr. Puckett said the project came to a standstill when the Office of Surface Mining ruled that the runway-extension project could be permitted only as a mine — and attorneys advised the town that a municipality could not hold a mining permit.
“It’s almost unbelievable that something like this is happening,” Mr. Puckett said. “It really should never have gotten to that point in my opinion, but it’s hard to tell the feds what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Only when U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, got involved did Interior Department regulators come back to the table to work out a solution, Mr. Puckett said.
Now, the proposed solution is to go back to the drawing board with a new permitting plan.
Mr. Warner’s office said the senator and Rep. H. Morgan Griffith helped convene a series of meetings of federal, state and local officials on the airport issue in an effort to find a solution.
James Keen, the airport manager, said a new approach will involve the Federal Aviation Administration as the primary federal agency.
“I think we’ve convinced everybody this is not a coal mine. This is a true airport-relocation project,” Mr. Keen said. “Of course, the coal would be sold and go back into the project.”
According to a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, “The FAA is aware of the interest by the town of Grundy in expanding its airport, and is working with the town, the Virginia Department of Aviation and other federal and state agencies to help explore the technical, environmental and financial feasibility of the project.”
By John McAfee
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