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Hot-button issue

Now, Mr. Keen said, the airport authority would seek to have the entire project covered by a government-financed exemption, which can be approved by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy alone. If approved, it would need additional permits required by other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

These agencies have been involved in a regulatory process that has put the brakes on hundreds of mining projects in Appalachia over the past three years and made the future of coal mining a hot-button political issue.

The coal industry accuses the Obama administration of waging a “war on coal,” with federal regulatory agencies blocking development of mines and imposing emissions limits that lead to the shutdown of coal-fired power plants. Coal production has dropped, resulting in layoffs and economic distress in mining communities. The issue resonates not only in the coal country of Southwest Virginia, but also in eastern Ohio, another key battleground state in this year’s presidential election. Industry groups have scheduled a big pro-coal rally in Grundy for Sunday.

“I’m not too happy about what’s going on with the EPA, but this airport project is an entirely different project,” Mr. Puckett said. “They’re using kind of the same regulations, I think, but they won’t tell you that.”

Mr. Puckett and Mr. Keen said they are hopeful that the required permits will be granted.

“We see it as a construction project and not a mine,” Mr. Keen said. “The mining permits are being held up. I’m not sure there are any construction projects that are being held up.”

Alpha recently celebrated its public-private partnership on another small airport, in Mingo County, W.Va.

“If this [Grundy airport] project were allowed to go forward when it was first proposed, it would have essentially meant zero cost to taxpayers for a fully prepared airport site,” said Mr. Pile. “Now, because the coal markets have gotten worse, the economics no longer work. It’s a missed opportunity.”