Board allows mine tunnels under Potomac

Public works panel acts on disputed plan while governor is away

`Nobody was looking'

Firm can bore 4 passages 350 feet below river to reach W.Va. coal field

October 17, 2002|By Michael Dresser and Kate Shatzkin | Michael Dresser and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Acting while Gov. Parris N. Glendening was away, the state Board of Public Works voted yesterday to allow a Garrett County mining company to tunnel under the north branch of the Potomac River to extract coal from West Virginia.

The plan, opposed by many environmentalists, would let the politically influential Mettiki Coal Corp. bore four temporary tunnels 350 feet below Maryland state land and the Potomac - no more than a stream at that point - to reach a 200-acre coal field in the neighboring state.

The Mettiki measure was a surprise addition to an otherwise unremarkable board agenda.

With Glendening in Washington for a meeting on homeland security, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer moved to put Mettiki's application for an easement on the board's calendar. The measure needed the votes of two of the board's three members and passed with the approving votes by Schaefer and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

Several environmentalists, who have been watching the proposal with trepidation, said yesterday's vote took them by surprise.

"It sounds like it was one of these things where they waited until nobody was looking and did it," said Jon Robinson, chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Glendening, said the governor was not aware that the matter would be placed on the agenda, although a member of his staff was aware that such a move was possible.

"The governor has always had some environmental concerns about this issue," she said.

Glendening's opposition is not shared by his Department of the Environment, however. Virginia Kearney, deputy director of the Water Management Administration, said the department had reviewed the proposal and determined it would have "minimal environmental impact" on the site in far Western Maryland.

Now that the board has approved the easement, which resolves an issue of managing state property, Kearney said, the agency will move forward with issuance of the environmental permit. Kearney said the company had convinced regulators that bringing the West Virginia coal out through Maryland made sense.

"It's more cost-effective and in fact feasible to do it from the Maryland side," she said.

Guillory said the state has a procedure for evaluating deals involving the disposition or use of state property, and the administration wanted Mettiki to wait for the process to be completed. "They chose not to," she said.

Schaefer and Kopp could not be reached after the board meeting to comment on why they acted while the governor was out of town. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who usually fills in for the governor when he is absent, was on the campaign trail.

David W. Thomas, Mettiki's public affairs director, said he had no idea why the item was not on the board's advance agenda. He said his impression was that the administration had signed off on the project.

Thomas said the project, which is expected to provide 320 jobs to residents of Western Maryland over the next two years, will be environmentally sound. "We've mined miles and miles under streams and waterways with no adverse effects to any of them," he said.

Maryland environmentalists continue to view the project with skepticism.

Robinson said he was concerned that the tunnels could cause the river bed to collapse. The Susquehanna River did just that in 1959, flooding mines underneath and killing 12 mine workers. In that case, government investigations discovered two chambers had been dug past legal limits under the river.

"I think there are some legitimate concerns about what would happen if the thing collapses and the river goes in," Robinson said.

West Virginia regulators told Mettiki in January that it could not use long-wall mining - which uses huge carving devices to shear off large chunks of coal - to extract the coal under a local native trout stream. State officials said the process could fracture the ground and deplete water in the stream.

That state's Surface Mining Board upheld the decision in May but said the company could mine outside a 300-foot buffer around the stream.

West Virginia environmental activists still worry about how the project will affect the local trout population - despite the limits imposed.

Kearney, the Maryland environmental official, said her department evaluated the possibility of the project collapsing the river bed and had decided that the risk was "insignificant."

She noted that the tunnels would run 350 feet below the bottom of the river, with more than 300 feet of shale and other rock between them and the surface.

Besides providing jobs in an economically distressed region, Mettiki offered the state several sweeteners to help complete the deal. Besides royalties on the coal extracted in digging the tunnels and payments for the coal brought back from West Virginia, Mettiki agreed to a demonstration project that could help the state deal with the vexing issue of chicken manure disposal in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The company said it would work with Perdue Agricycle LLC to try to develop a "recipe" for using Eastern Shore chicken waste as a fertilizer for trees and other vegetation planted on reclaimed mine sites.

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