Front Porch Blog

Strip mine highway gets a hard look

Image courtesy of the Sierra Club

Image courtesy of the Sierra Club

The Coalfields Expressway as currently proposed is not a classic “road to nowhere” boondoggle, but it is a road to the destruction of mountains, creeks and economic opportunities in Southwest Virginia.

So it was a joyous day in June when we learned that, after many years of collaborative effort by Appalachian Voices and partner groups, and the persistence of countless citizens across the region, federal officials had put the brakes on it.

The move provides a chance for the public to have a voice in developing the best transportation options for Southwest Virginia while ensuring the long-term economic sustainability and natural heritage of the region.

In short, what happened is this. A four-lane highway from Pound, Va., to Beckley, W.V., was planned decades ago, but was never built due to the prohibitive cost. In 2006, the state partnered with the coal company Alpha Natural Resources to “grade” part of the roadbed by strip mining it, saving public funds.

But the project had to be re-routed over enough coal deposits to make it profitable for the company. Not only would the new route destroy three times as much forest land and stream miles, it also skirted many town centers, threatening to harm the local economy rather than help it (read more on the project’s history). Despite the major change, the Virginia Department of Transportation only conducted a cursory study of the impacts.

Working shoulder-to-shoulder with local citizens, Appalachian Voices and partner groups called for a full environmental impact study as required by federal law. And we pulled out all the stops. We met with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the McAuliffe Administration. We spoke before the Commonwealth Transportation Board. We rallied outside of Alpha’s headquarters in Abingdon and FHWA headquarters in Washington, D.C. By the end, more than 85,000 people spoke out through comments to public officials.

The June decision by the FHWA will require a thorough study of the community and environmental impacts of the project and re-opens the process to full public involvement. But the fight isn’t over. Appalachian Voices remains committed to working with local citizens to ensure the law is followed, the process is transparent, that voices are heard, and most importantly, that the best choice is made.





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