By Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.
Today, Appalachian community leaders are in Washington, D.C., to protest a Virginia coal boondoggle that has set its sights on $2 billion of your federal tax dollars. Mountaintop removal coal mining is already a shocking, devastating, and destructive practice on its own - but what happens when you add in coal companies making deals with state and federal transportation agencies in order to seize private land and blow it up for coal? Well then you get the planned Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia.
The project is a public-private partnership between the Commonwealth of Virginia and coal mining companies, including Alpha Natural Resources. The coal companies would get to strip mine the land and leave it razed for building the highway (which may not ever be completed). In order to make this bad deal work, the coal companies were allowed to re-route the highway's proposed route, moving it away from local business districts and threatening to take thousands of acres of privately-owned land through eminent domain.
Clearly, land and water would be ruined by this mountaintop removal coal mining project, and public health would be put at risk. But on top of all that, the companies are also gunning for $2 billion in federal funds to help make this happen.
"The Commonwealth has put our future in the hands of mountaintop removal mining executives," said Diana Withen, a high school teacher in Wise County, Virginia, where this project is located. "They're letting out-of-town mountaintop removal companies, which have no business planning our roads, redraw the route away from our communities. This isn't a highway; it’s a 50-mile-long strip mine in our backyards."
This terrible plan is why a huge crowd of people showed up to rally on the doorstep of the Federal Highway Administration today in Washington, D.C., including our partners from Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Appalachian Voices. Holding photos of land devastated by mountaintop removal and shouting, "This is not a highway," people demanded that the Federal Highway Administration review the effects of the project.
Last summer more than 85,000 comments were submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation requesting that a more detailed study be conducted to investigate the social, environmental and economic impacts of the re-routed road. The Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all submitted comments strongly urging a closer look at the project.
This project is poorly planned, a threat to local public health, land, and water, and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
We urge the Federal Highway Administration to stand up for Appalachian communities, and complete a full study of the threats this road would pose to local communities. There are better ways to improve transportation options in southwest Virginia.
As Diana Withen told me, "We need smart, forward-thinking transportation improvement projects such as fixing existing roads, ensuring access to existing highways for rural towns, improving public transit access and promoting multi-use trails that attract tourism and boost local economies."
Virginia's transportation agencies shouldn't be in the business of lining the pockets of multi-million dollar mountaintop removal mining companies. The Federal Highway Administration must take a hard look at this project, and it should not commit our federal tax dollars to prop up this multi-billion dollar coal industry scheme.