Monday, August 14, 2006

Moving the Mountains

Roanoke Times reporter Tim Thornton has a series about what is happening in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virginia called Moving the Mountains. Below is the most recent feature in the series, the rest can be found here.

Women make some noise about mining blasts
Two residents of a coal mining town are fighting for an ordinance that would limit explosions.

STEPHENS, VA -- The coal mine is quiet now. It has been since the company that ran it went bankrupt in May. But Kathy Selvage and Charlene Greene are pretty sure some other company will come along and pick up where that one left off.

They're convinced it's just a matter of time before another crew comes in to set off explosives and bring the beep and roar of heavy machinery back to their houses from early morning to early morning.

"If you opened the windows," Selvage recalled, "in rushed the noise and the dust."

So Selvage, 56, and Greene, 64, are trying to get the Wise County Board of Supervisors to pass a noise ordinance. Their proposal has been embraced as a new front in the struggle over mountaintop removal mining and other large strip mine operations in Southwest Virginia.

The ordinance wouldn't apply only to the mine that looms over Stephens, but it would certainly affect it. The old operation was supposed to run 20 hours a day, though Selvage and Greene say it routinely went longer. They want to limit mining in residential areas to 15 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the week. On Sundays, the noise couldn't start until 10 a.m.

The ordinance would apply to other noisy things, too: stereos, leaf blowers, power tools. But it's the mining that's drawn attention.

"This is an issue that could be -- and has been in times past -- kind of volatile," Board of Supervisors Chairman Fred Luntsford said wryly. "I think everybody deserves to have a peaceful atmosphere around them. But we all know Wise County is a coal-producing county, and with that comes this type of thing.

"Those points will be argued seven ways to Sunday."

If the argument ever gets started.

Greene and Selvage took a draft ordinance to a board work session on the first Thursday in July and left believing their proposal would be on the agenda at the supervisors' regular meeting the next week. It wasn't.

"Frankly, there wasn't a lot of support among the supervisors to have it on the agenda," Luntsford said.

But he persuaded the board to put the issue on August's agenda, Luntsford said in July. Luntsford wasn't talking about discussing the ordinance. He's proposing having a discussion about whether the board should schedule a public hearing so there can be a discussion about the ordinance.

And even that may not happen. After some county officials said they didn't want to talk about a noise ordinance until they'd seen an enforceable county ordinance -- Selvage and Greene modeled their proposal after a town ordinance -- Selvage and Greene brought the supervisors a copy of Pulaski County's noise ordinance.

The supervisors liked that ordinance, but Selvage said Aug. 1 that Pulaski County's ordinance wouldn't accomplish what she and Greene want. In Pulaski, the big issue was a racetrack, Selvage said. That's entirely different from mining, she said. Some of the activists who are trying to end mountaintop removal mining have taken notice of Greene and Selvage's efforts, but the pair aren't professional campaigners. Far from it.

"We were just two housewives, is what we were," Greene said, sitting on Selvage's front porch. "We weren't interested in things like this -- were we, Kathy? -- until it was put right here in front of us."

"We started at ground level," Selvage agreed. "We didn't know anything."

Selvage's first complaint about the mine came late last summer, after a particularly violent explosion. She was accustomed to the blasts used to break up the layers of rock that cover coal seams, but this one was different.

"I actually thought for a few seconds there it was an earthquake," Selvage said.

She suspected that Glamorgan, the company running the mine, was using a bigger charge than the law allows. Selvage has lodged many complaints since then, she said. State mining regulators bring out equipment to measure the blasts. Only two or three times have the explosions been officially over the line, she said.

There's been no blasting since Glamorgan's parent company went bankrupt, and now the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy may revoke the company's permits at Stephens and three other sites because of apparent misstatements in company filings with the agency.

Greene began her campaign six or eight months before she teamed up with Selvage. Mining laws are just too lax, she said. Mining activity, including blasting, is allowed 300 feet from houses. Last year, a rock the size of a hard hat plunged into one house in Stephens.

Greene and Selvage say the bankrupt company had permits to mine 500 acres underneath Stephens, and that worries them more. "We don't want to go the way of Pardee," Selvage said. "Pardee doesn't have an inhabitant."

Named for the president of a coal company, Pardee was a Wise County coal camp. The only place you can see it these days is in "Coal Miner's Daughter." Pardee provided street scenes and a company store for the Loretta Lynn film biography.

"Right after they finished filming, they tore down the commissary," said Brian McKnight, a former teaching fellow at the University of Virginia's College at Wise.

The whole community is a mine site now.

Bill McCabe, a Sierra Club organizer, has helped Greene and Selvage in their campaign. Greene and Selvage have helped an anti-mountaintop-removal group that appeared in the coalfields last year, Mountain Justice Summer, make contacts in their community.

"I don't know if what we're looking at is mountaintop removal because they didn't just remove the top," Selvage said as she looked toward the silent mine. "They took the whole thing."

This pair of coalfield housewives is promoting renewable energy.

"I think Charlene and I would have been tickled to death to see windmills on top of that mountain instead of taking the whole thing down," Selvage said.

But for now, they'll concentrate on noise, asserting that residents' right to a few hours of quiet is worth as much as a company's right to dig coal.

"We would hope that other people in other parts of Virginia would come to understand what is happening to us," Selvage said.

Maybe if the blasting were going on 300 feet from the state Capitol, legislators would notice, she said. Maybe if a coal company executive had to live in a house at the edge of a mine for a month, something would change.

"I will spend whatever time I have on this earth," Greene said, "trying to bring regular people on the same level as coal."

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