Neighbors in rural Pennsylvania areas leery of proposed deep-mine projects
By Jason Cato
Published: Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Standing between his prized beds of tomatoes, peppers and other produce, Robert Wojtaszek gazed at the pasture behind his Somerset County property.
He fears the tranquility of rural Woodstown village is endangered. A Johnstown company seeks state approval to dig a coal mine on the farm that abuts his property.
“I don't have anything against coal mines,” said Wojtaszek, 69, who spent 18 years digging coal in Somerset County — the second-largest coal-producing county in the country's fourth-largest coal-producing state. “But who in their right mind would want a coal mine in their backyard?”
LCT Energy Inc.'s proposed Maple Springs Mine faces opposition similar to at least two other increasingly rare deep mines planned in a region with a coal-mining history dating to 1760 on Mt. Washington.
Other newly proposed mines facing pushback from residents and environmental groups include one that LCT Energy hopes to build in Donegal, Westmoreland County, and one a Kentucky company wants to build in Nottingham, Washington County.
To show its willingness to cooperate and coexist, LCT Energy amended plans to move the bulk of its above-ground mining activity 1,000 feet from Wojtaszek's property and that of his neighbors, company president Mark Tercek said. The company wants to build its operation on 51 acres to gain access to 22 million tons of coal across nearly 3,800 acres underground. The mine could operate for 15 years or more, Tercek said.
“LCT feels that they are going to be a part of the community for the next 15-plus years and it is vitally important to be a ‘good neighbor,' ” he said. “In short, LCT is very sensitive to the concerns of the entire local community.”
Opponents of the three proposed projects cite common worries such as the impact on quality of life, property values and the environment, including creeks and drinking water. Each specifies concerns related to the projects in their areas, including the potential impact a mine in Donegal could have on the tourism economy of the Laurel Highlands.
“They have no clue how this will impact the community,” said Beverly Braverman, executive director of the Mountain Watershed Association, based in Melcroft, Fayette County.
Mining operations raise concerns about subsidence, contamination of water and air, excess dust, traffic, noise and diesel pollution, said Braverman, whose group leads the charge against the Donegal mine as it has since the 1990s to keep a mine from opening in nearby Saltlick, Fayette County.
“It's really just the denigration of your quality of life,” she said.
Coal mining in Pennsylvania is heavily regulated by the Department of Environmental Protection and its bureaus of District Mining Operations and Mining and Reclamation.
“These are some of the most complex permits we issue, and we set a high bar,” said DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday.
George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance in Harrisburg, doesn't believe the opposition is part of a growing trend. Some projects, however, are running into urban sprawl more than they once did, he said.
The Pittsburgh metropolitan region reversed a four-decade shrinking trend with the 2010 census, which showed almost 9 percent growth to nearly 2.7 million people.
Over the past 20-plus years, populations in the northern Washington County communities of Peters and North Strabane swelled more than 35 percent.
“The Pittsburgh suburbs have really expanded in the past 20 years, and that may be an issue,” he said.
That appears particularly true in Nottingham, Ellis said.
Census figures show the township has a population density of 124 people per square mile, compared with 50 in Donegal and 176 in Conemaugh, the municipality that encompasses Wojtaszek and his Woodstown neighbors.
Located 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, Nottingham's population grew nearly 20 percent during the past decade to more than 3,000 residents. Median home prices climbed from $180,000 to $250,000, real estate records show.
Ramaco wants to build a mine on 42 acres along Little Mingo Road. Township officials in May begrudgingly approved a conditional use for the project, which has yet to file for a mining permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“We're just kind of in a holding pattern until they put their cards on the table,” said Patrick Grenter, director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, a Washington, Pa.-based nonprofit helping to organize concerned residents.
Ramaco officials could not be reached for comment. They have said the company's intentions are to cause minimal impact using up to 70 triaxle trucks per day to haul loads from the 8 million-ton reserve of metallurgical coal, which is used in steelmaking. Power plants burn steam coal.
Jim Kalp's official job title is farmer, but he relies on the coal industry to make a living.
Four years ago, Kalp leased a portion of his 250-acre family farm off Chearney Road in Acme, Westmoreland County, for strip mining.
“It's another income to pay off the farm mortgage,” said Kalp, 46, who earns money from the 45-acre lease and a royalty on any coal sold.
Kalp also established a lumber mill on the farm to make money.
“It's our land,” Kalp said. “We ought to be able to do what we want to.”
Since 2008, DEP has issued 21 underground mining permits. The agency has received 28 deep-mine applications during that same period, though some — such as the Maple Springs project — haven't receive rulings.
By comparison, the state issued more than 300 surface-mining permits during the past six years.
Many residents living near proposed deep mines realize their chances are slim of stopping the projects altogether. Short of that, they hope to minimize potential negative impacts.
Like Wojtaszek, neighbors Philip and Mary Faranda enlisted in the fight against the Maple Springs Mine. They own property next to the site and Faranda's Farm, their agricultural-tourism business across Route 601. Mary Faranda said neighbors should respect one another.
“Just because you own your property doesn't mean you don't have some sense of responsibility for your neighbors,” she said. “Mining is not a pretty sight. Who wants to live with all that stress? If we wanted that, we could live in the city.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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