A dust-up over coal revival

Dynamite, heavy trucks rumble at mine operations, bringing noise, dust and dirt to nearby residents

April 29, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

BARTON -- When Randy Preston sees a cloud of dust headed his way, he knows what to expect - more heavy trucks on their way to or from the surface coal mine on the mountain above his home.

The dust and coal ash from the trucks coat his house in Allegany County, says the 43-year-old Barton native, and the rumble of the traffic past his bedroom wakes him hours before dawn.

"Beginning at 3 a.m. they start going up, and by 4 o'clock they're hauling down," he says. Disabled with medical problems, Preston contends that the dust and din of traffic to and from the mine have contributed to a nonstop headache he has had for the past two years.

There aren't as many mines or miners in Western Maryland as there were in coal's heyday in the early 20th century. But with energy prices up, the state's 26 mines are going full tilt, and even employment is up, from 400 in 2000 to 468 last year. The amount of coal pried from the mountains in Allegany and Garrett counties the past several years has soared to record levels - until last year, when Mettiki, the state's largest underground mine, closed.

Mining's resurgence has brought complaints from neighboring residents about their homes being shaken by blasting or by passing trucks, and about grit and ash soiling their homes and choking them.

"With increased production from some of the large mining companies, we are getting more phone calls, more complaints," says John E. Carey, chief of the Maryland Bureau of Mines in Frostburg.

One result is a growing number of violation notices given to coal mines by the state - rising from 10 violations with no penalties in 2002 to 126 violations and $3.7 million in penalties in 2006, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Tragically, too, there have been reminders of the dangers of mining coal.

This month, a 125-foot-high rock wall in an open-pit mine near Barton collapsed, burying two miners working on heavy equipment in the trench. After three days of digging and blasting through a mound of rubble 40 to 80 feet deep, searchers recovered their bodies.

Mining remains a dangerous, dirty business, though increased mechanization and tighter safety regulations over the years have reduced fatalities and injuries - at least until last year, when two large mine explosions contributed to a nationwide spike in deaths.

In Maryland, where only a tiny fraction of the nation's coal is extracted, there have been four deaths in the past decade - three of them in the past two years.

Carey says his staff of four inspectors keeps a close eye on the region's mining operations and that there have been no documented instances lately of blasting tremors exceeding allowed limits. His inspectors are working with the mines to reduce dust, Carey says. Complaints about being disrupted by night and weekend operations are up to local authorities, he adds.

Tom Smith, mayor of Westernport, is not reassured. He has asked state and county officials to come to his small town, where George's Creek meets the North Branch of the Potomac River, to hear residents' complaints about the mining operations just beyond the municipal border. The mayor also wants officials to address residents' fears of a new operation seeking to start even closer to their homes.

"I do not mind the coal mining," says Smith, a retired electrician from the Westvaco paper mill in nearby Luke. "It's the lifeblood of this area. It just has to be done right, or the quality of life for the citizens of this town will wane, will go downhill."

Smith had arranged a meeting to air grievances over mining near his town for the night of April 17. It was called off after the mine wall collapse that day.

Tri-Star Mining Inc., the company that employed the two miners killed in this month's mine collapse, has applied for a permit to extract coal from another near-surface seam about 750 feet from the Westernport town limits, said the state mining regulator. The town's mayor says some residents already have problems with the mining going on just beyond the proposed new mine.

"The dynamiting that's going on up there as we speak, it's shaken houses. I've had one person tell me it broke the plaster in their kitchen," Smith said.

Nancy Shaffer, who lives with her retiree husband almost within sight of the mine up the hill, says she was alarmed to see the headboard on her bed move an inch from the wall after one blast.

"We're concerned about the foundation of our home," she said. They have lived in the house since building it in 1964, she said. "I think it's too close to houses," she said of the mine.

Carey, the state mine regulator, said he is unaware of problems with the blasting outside Westernport. The state has a blasting consultant, who has monitored all the dynamiting and has detected no vibrations in excess of federal limits, he said. A blast below the federal vibration threshold would be felt but shouldn't cause damage to structures, he said.

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