This proposed four-lane, 116-mile highway, from Pound, Virginia, to Beckley, West Virginia, was conceived two decades ago during the heyday of U.S. highway building. But the Coalfields Expressway (CFX) was quickly determined to be too costly to build, given the steep terrain and multiple stream crossings that would be required in the mountains of southwest Virginia.
Too expensive, that is, until the coal industry stepped in.
In West Virginia, the industry proposed mountaintop removal mining across ridge tops, taking the coal and leaving a flat surface for road construction. Virginia soon followed, and in 2006, state officials joined with Alpha Natural Resources to announce a plan to allow the coal company to “grade” a 24-mile section by strip mining it. The company would get the coal to sell, and the cost to the public for the road project would be halved to about $2.8 billion—still an exorbitant price for a highway that would do little to bring economic development to the region. In fact, it would likely hurt local economies.
Once Alpha got involved, the planned highway was re-routed to ensure it covered enough coal deposits to be profitable for the company. As a result, the CFX route now bypasses many of the region’s economic hubs. Local citizens have long questioned whether this is the best way to promote local economic development. (The Appalachian Regional Commission and others suggest there are many more cost-effective strategies for economic development in distressed counties than building huge highways.)
In addition, the altered route drastically increases environmental impacts. More than 2,000 acres of forest and twelve miles of stream would be destroyed, compared with 720 acres of forest and four stream miles impacted by the originally approved route.
In 2001, the Virginia Department of Transportation conducted an environmental impact statement, as required by federal law. After the deal with the coal industry alterning the route, VDOT did another, albeit more cursory environmental review, and released the draft in 2012. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and Corps of Engineers all raised serious concerns about the project and called for further study.
For several years, Appalachian Voices, in tandem with Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and other groups, has helped citizens express their concerns about the project to local, state and federal officials. In a key victory for local citizens, the Federal Highways Administration told VDOT in May 2014 that a full-blown environmental impact statement is required to account for the significant changes in the project. That report is expected to take about 18 months and will include opportunity for public comment.
In the meantime, citizens in southwest Virginia are coming together to envision potential alternatives to the CFX that would better serve their communities.