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.
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.
"When we got with OSM to get the permit for that, they weren't going to give it," Mr. Puckett said. "They said it was a coal mine operation and not an airport."
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."
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."