At first blush, the project seems promising: a 116-mile, four-lane highway from Pound, Va., to Beckley, W.Va. The highway, some of which has been completed, does or will link to several major existing roadways and clearly will ease transportation woes. What could be better to give the region a much-needed shot in the economic arm?
Not so fast, say a host of environmental groups, civic associations, and concerned citizens. They’re balking because the Coalfields Expressway (CFX), which was deemed too expensive when it was proposed 20 years ago due to steep terrain and multiple stream crossings, now has a suspicious savior: the coal industry. In its beneficence, the industry offered to grade the roadway and fund a large chunk of the project in both states. All it asked for in return was permission to strip mine along the route. West Virginia caved in, and much of its portion of the CFX is complete. But opponents of a segment in Virginia (U.S. Route 121) are raising hell.
“We’ve been fighting mountaintop removal for over 16 years because it has significant impacts to the environment and human health,” Appalachian Voices Campaign Director Kate Rooth said. “This project is the coal companies’ creative attempt to do mountaintop removal mining without having to fulfill all the legal requirements, including the site-by-site permitting process under the Clean Water Act. They’re trying to get around the law and around the proper protections designed to prevent harm to communities from these extractions.”
Appalachian Voices and other like-minded groups stress that they aren’t allergic to development. “We’re not opposed to a road—we’re opposed to this proposal,” Rooth said. “We want to see investment of taxpayer dollars in economic diversification. With the decline of coal, the economy has become very stressed. There’s great need for projects that will bring economic stimulus.”
Rooth and others rejoiced in May when the Federal Highway Administration ordered the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to conduct a new environmental impact assessment to supplement the one VDOT completed in 2001. This new review, which could take up to 18 months, is necessary because the project was significantly rerouted across ridge tops in Virginia to ensure it covered enough coal deposits for industry to turn a profit. In exchange, a coal company named Alpha Natural Resources (who declined to comment for this article) ponied up about 45 percent of the Virginia segment’s cost, which still left state taxpayers with an exorbitant $2.8 billion tab for just 24 miles of highway.
CFX proponents like VDOT claim the project will ignite an economic spark in one of the poorest regions of the country. VDOT promises a host of goodies based on a study it commissioned, including some 29,000 construction jobs over 17 years; a $4.1 billion impact from wages, direct spending, and “ripple effects”; 372 permanent roadside service jobs, with an annual economic impact of $41.4 million; safer driving; more tourism; and better access to education and healthcare.
But skepticism is more than warranted, especially given other studies showing that large road projects tend to be poor catalysts of rural economic development. What’s indisputable are the horrendous environmental and human health effects of mountaintop removal mining—externalities that are rarely monetized in economic studies.
According to VDOT, the CFX actually will begin to wean the state off of its coal habit. “The project will help diversify southwestern Virginia’s economic base to become less dependent on any single industry,” said Mandy Cox, VDOT program manager for Route 121, Virginia’s portion of the CFX. “The route is not aimed at facilitating the transport of coal.” It is, however, plainly aimed at facilitating the extraction of coal. That the CFX is mostly about propping up the coal industry is obvious considering the new route bypasses several key economic hubs, which have complained that they will lose vital traffic flows.
The environment will suffer, too. Although Cox cites protections under numerous laws, at least on paper, there is simply no clean way to conduct mountaintop removal mining; it already has polluted and degraded much of the region under those same laws. Not to mention that simply building the highway along its new route will destroy some 2,000 acres of forest and 12 miles of streams, compared to about 720 acres of forest and four miles of streams impacted by the original route.
Alpha Natural Resources is cashing in on what amounts to a giant government subsidy for its mining operations, at a massive cost to human health and the environment. The coal company will laugh all the way to the bank after VDOT green-washes the boondoggle with its totally objective environmental assessment, but taxpayers might regret their involuntary multibillion-dollar investment when their drinking water turns orange. (See “One Man’s Fight to Save His Creek, and His Life, with a New Vision for Rural Appalachia” in the July 2014 issue.)
Everyone wants economic development in Appalachia. Steps are desperately needed to attract more jobs and facilitate better access to healthcare, education, fresh food, and other necessities. But is the so-called “coal synergy” approach the best way to achieve this? Instead of lining coal companies’ pockets, let’s use that $2.8 billion for improvements to existing roads, rails-to-trails pathways, and other projects that really make economic sense and will actually help diversify Appalachia’s economy for the benefit of all.