Washington community worries coal mine will encroach on way of life

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 10:40 p.m.

Along the ever-changing line where southward suburban growth abuts rural living, a Kentucky company's desire to reopen a coal mine in Washington County faces opposition from some residents who worry it threatens their bucolic surroundings along Mingo Creek.

“If this goes through, it will completely wreck everybody's home values and quality of life,” said Lorraine Noel, who posted signs against the project on her Nottingham property at the corner of Sugar Run and Little Mingo roads. “It literally doesn't fit. It doesn't fit with the intentions of why we moved here.”

Ramaco Inc., a Lexington-based company, wants to build a mine on 42 acres zoned agricultural along Little Mingo Road. Township officials are expected to vote on May 6 on a conditional-use and land development permit so that Ramaco could erect a portal, bathhouse and other facilities.

“We're trying to resurrect an old coal mine,” said Michael Bauersachs, Ramaco's president and cofounder.

In Nottingham, a community of 3,036 near Peters and Eighty-Four, country roads that wind past Mingo Creek County Park often draw bicyclists. Horses graze in pastures, and groundhogs and turkeys wander from woods to fields. This way of life, some residents fear, could disappear with the dust, noise and traffic a mining operation would bring.

Township officials estimate 70 trucks a day would transport coal from the mine.

“We are all sitting on properties that are worth a lot of money,” Noel said. “So we all stand to lose.”

The median home price in the township in 2012 was nearly $250,000, up from $180,000 in 2000, according to RealStats, a South Side-based real estate information company. Homes in the upscale Great Meadows development along Nottingham's northern border with Peters sell for between $300,000 and $700,000, according to Century 21 Realtor Jim Dolanch's website.

Dennis Franks learned about the potential mine in March through a letter from township officials.

“We were kind of shocked. This is going right in my front yard,” said Franks, 58, who built his house 20 years ago. “We chose this location because of its quietness. It was country, agricultural. Now they're going to put an industrial park in it.”

Ramaco would spend “tens of millions of dollars,” Bauersachs said, to construct a mine to access coal in the Pittsburgh seam once mined by Mon View Mining Co., whose Mathies Mine closed in 2005 in bankruptcy. Ramaco wants to reach about 8 million tons of metallurgical coal, used in steelmaking, by digging up to 500,000 tons a year.

Bauersachs, a former vice president with the defunct Massey Energy Corp., estimates the Nottingham mine would employ 40 people full time and lead to 150 jobs total through subcontractors.

If the company gets township approval, it would apply for a mining permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. A “permit decision guarantee” that Gov. Tom Corbett put in place commits the DEP to decide within 380 days, agency spokesman Kevin Sunday said.

“These are some of the most complex permits we issue, and we set a high bar,” he said. “Pennsylvania's deep-mine safety record is one of the highest in the world, and that is because of our standards.”

Since 2008, DEP has approved 21 underground mining applications, he said. By comparison, the state issued more than 300 surface-mining permits during the past six years.

Ramaco considered less costly access options but settled on the Little Mingo site after talking with township officials, Bauersachs said.

“We tried to find a site that would have the least amount of impact,” he said. “We plan to be a very good neighbor. We know there is an impact in the community with something like this. But we believe the impact overall will be positive.”

Peter Marcoline Jr., chairman of the Nottingham board of supervisors, acknowledged elected officials worry about a mine's potential impact on residents.

“We are getting a lot of complaints,” Marcoline said.

Amerikohl Mining Inc. of Butler last year opened a surface coal-mining operation off Valley View Road in Nottingham. The company in January told township officials it intends to mine several other properties over the next four years.

More than 100 people packed an April 1 public hearing addressing the proposed Ramaco project, and officials expect at least that many to show up for May's vote.

Ramaco is buying the Little Mingo acreage from Dr. Mark E. Hudson, an anesthesiologist. He did not return calls for comment.

The company in March bought 115 acres on nearby Barr Road from Thomas Robinson of Peters for $875,000, records show. Bauersachs said Ramaco plans to trade the land to Hudson as part of the deal. He did not reveal financial details of their arrangement.

Robinson said an attorney contacted him about selling the former Barr Farm property he purchased three decades ago. The attorney did not reveal why his client wanted the land. Robinson said he isn't upset about the potential coal mine.

“It's not my fight,” said Robinson, who still owns 19 acres on Barr Road. “I understand others are upset. But if they didn't want a mine there, they should have bought the land.”

The problem isn't coal mines or business in general, said Franks, a retired mechanical repairman for U.S. Steel.

“We're not against industry. A lot of us worked in industry,” he said. “But we are against industry in an agricultural setting.”

Coal removed from the mine could be used domestically by U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, or transported by river barges to New Orleans and sold to foreign markets, Bauersachs said. Ramaco owns a dock site on the Monongahela River near New Eagle that it acquired from Mon View Mining.

Franks, Noel and other residents plan to fight the project with the help of the Center for Coalfield Justice, a Washington, Pa.-based nonprofit founded in 1994.

“An operation like this will change the nature of Nottingham Township,” said Patrick Grenter, the center's executive director. “Old tricks or promises of great development and jobs and prosperity associated with coal mining aren't going to work because largely they aren't true.”

Though the opposition is likely to be loud, Bauersachs said not everyone in the community is against his project.

“As with anything, there usually is a silent majority who appreciate the injection of jobs and capital into the economy,” he said. “We know not everyone will agree with us. But one thing we want to share is the truth.”

Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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