WASHINGTON -- A subsidiary of the second-largest coal company in the United States is seeking permission to mine directly underneath a high school in West Virginia. Local school officials and environmentalists alike are expressing public opposition to the mine, citing safety concerns of what could be an eight year mining project.
The Wolf Run Mining Company, a subset of Arch Coal (which acquired the group that operated the Sago mine where 12 miners were killed in 2006), has filed a permit seeking permission to mine under both Buckhannon-Upshur High School and a proposed site for a new middle school in Buckhannon, West Virginia.
The company owns the rights to the coal beneath the high school and has proposed plans for an 1,800-acre underground coal mine that could produce eight million tons of coal over the span of eight years.
"It was our understanding there wasn't going to be any mining under the proposed building. They own the coal rights underneath [the area], but we thought there was a different way to get to the coal that they wanted to get to," said Scott Lampinen, superintendent of Upshur County Schools. Lampinen and the Upshur County Board of Education have spoken out against the plans, citing safety and structural concerns.
"The obvious reasons [we oppose] are the health and safety, or any potential health and safety issues, of our students and our staff and the property itself," Lampinen said. "We're not against mining, we're not against jobs, we're not against the coal industry. We just don't want it underneath where we're proposing a new school or any existing schools."
Lampinen and the Upshur County Board of Education filed a 22-page complaint against Wolf Run Mining Company's actions with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The Upshur County Board of Education also posted a press release on its website expressing objection to the mining.
But the school board isn't the only group taking a public stance against Wolf Run. CREDO Action, a division of the for-profit company CREDO that has generated millions for non-profit groups, is running an online campaign against Arch Coal and its CEO Steven Leer.
More than 57,000 people have signed CREDO's petition against mining under the high school.
Josh Nelson, campaign manager at CREDO Action, called Arch Coal's desire to mine under a high school "shockingly irresponsible."
"The primary concern is that methane gas could leak into one or both of the school buildings, potentially causing an explosion," he said. "A buildup of methane gas was one of the contributing factors that caused the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., last spring, which killed 29 mine workers. I think it goes without saying that middle and high school students shouldn't be exposed to a similar threat."
Nelson continued, "A secondary concern is subsidence -- or the downward shift of the earth's surface that can occur where underground coal mining takes place. In a worst-case scenario, this could endanger students and faculty in the schools. At bare minimum, it could cause major damage to the schools' facilities."
West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Jason Bostic said it is not unusual for coal to be mined out from underneath structures, buildings and roads. He said the WVCA feels resistance to the Wolf Run mine may not be valid.
"We just want to make sure their opposition is based on accurate facts and technical representations," Bostic said. "We mine underground, mine underneath lots of things all the time. It's integral to our business because coal seams are underground."
Bostic did say that if a mine should open, any damage done to school property would have to be fully compensated by the mine company. He also defeated Nelson's claim that "this mine wouldn't even produce that much coal -- about 1 million tons a year, [when] Arch Coal mined more than 148 million tons in 2009."
"That number is probably average for a large-development underground mining operation, and it's not necessarily that the whole reserve is sitting under the school," Bostic said. "What you would have is the reserve fanned out in other areas, and the reserve base itself may contribute a million tons, which may be transported through entries that are located under the school on conveyor belts."
As for some of the concerns about methane gas, Bostic said they either weren't likely to happen or could easily be fixed if needed.
"The school is sitting in the open air, and I don't think you're going to have methane infiltration. That sounds to me like an alarmist claim," he said.
When asked about the mine, Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link said company officials were still reviewing plans for the site, which they only recently acquired after purchasing the International Coal Group in a $3.4 billion deal.
"Having just acquired the ICG operations in mid-June, we are currently reviewing the plans for future mining at Wolf Run," Link said. "Arch strives to be a good neighbor in our communities, and we are committed to working with the school board to address their concerns and to explore the best way forward. Of course, the top priority will always be ensuring the safety of everyone involved -- both inside and outside the mine."
Arch Coal rose to the number two spot on the list of major U.S. mining companies after acquiring ICG -- the company that originally owned Wolf Run.
Attorneys for the Wolf Run Mining Company, ICG and the Upshur County Board of Education are currently discussing possible resolutions to the matter and have not set a potential date for settlement.
Update: This report incorrectly stated that Arch Coal operated the Sago mine where 12 miners were killed in 2006. This has been changed to reflect that a subsidiary of International Coal Group (ICG) operated the mine at the time, and Arch Coal later acquired ICG.