Saturday, October 20, 2012

'Coal Mine' Classification of Rural Virginia Airport Expansion Halts County's Economic Development Plan

An airport expansion in the southwestern tip of Virginia is being held up due to regulatory red tape regarding the local airport authority's plans to partially finance it by unearthing and selling coal from a seam that runs underneath the project.

Although state regulators had signed off of the project a few years ago, the runway expansion was subject to review from Federal regulators from the Office of Surface Mining. The project reached an impasse when regulators in Washington D.C. determined that the Breaks Regional Airport Authority proposal was in fact a coal mine and would be subject to a much lengthier and costlier permitting process.
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.”
While coal would be recovered from the site the lengthy permitting process is more reminiscent of a permanent mining facility, not one that would see some limited recovery of coal before being converted to another use in short order.

The airport is located in Grundy, VA- a mountainous town of about 1100 people thats also the county seat of Buchanan County in the southwestern tip of Virginia. The Grundy airport was completed in 1969 on land donated to the town by the United Coal Company. Since United Coal had already done surface mining on the land, it was flat enough to build a runway but the additional 2800 feet would require adjacent hills to be levelled. Those hills also contain a fairly rich seam of coal that the Breaks Regional Airport Authority would sell to help offset construction costs. However, since the project was proposed in 2004, the cost of coal has declined dramatically as the airport project has been hampered by delays.
Moreover, attorneys for the town advised that a municipality cannot obtain a mining permit, putting Grundy in a Catch-22 situation. Federal regulators had reportedly relented only after pressure on the US Ofice of Surface Mining from Senator Mark Warner (D- VA). Town officials are getting ready to attempt a 'Plan B' that would involve a permitting process that would involve the Federal Aviation Administration as the primary agency. However, even if it is reclassified as a construction project, the airport expansion requires approval from the Environmental Protection Agency and US Army Corps of Engineers- two agencies that have halted scores of projects in coal country in recent years.

Currently, Grundy and Buchanan county are accessable by US Route 460 and Virginia Route 83. The nearest airports that can accomodate private jets are in Abingdon, VA while the nearest commercial airports are in Beckley, WV or Johnson City, TN. Although there is a recently completed 1200-acre mixed use business park in Buchanan County, potential investors have to travel at least an hour and a half over narrow, mountainous roads from the nearest airport if they want to see the industrial park for themselves.
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.
As of 2009, Buchanan County was the poorest in the state of Virginia.

The region also recieved bad news last month with Bristol, VA-based Alpha Natural Resources announcing the closure of eight mines and layoffs of nearly 10% of the company's workforce. Although a mild winter and increased competition from natural gas have depressed coal prices in the last year or so, President Obama had promised to bankrupt the coal industry and shut down a number of coal-fired power plants.

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