The King Coal Highway is an audacious plan to remake southern West Virginia—1,200 feet up.
Written by Pam Kasey
Photo Courtesy of Mingo County Redevelopment Authority
Imagine a farm with strong, suntanned workers plucking vegetables from long rows and placing them in crates. Behind a distant fence, pink and black pigs root and grunt. Row crops, in another direction, give way to fruit trees. It might make you think of California—but now, set it down in hardscrabble Mingo County, West Virginia.
“People don’t think of Mingo County as an agriculture-based economy—and rightfully so, because our land is on the side of a mountain,” says Steve Kominar, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority (MCRA). “But Mingo County is the warmest county in West Virginia, so our season is extended somewhat. With some flat land and a few organic ingredients—cattle waste, hog waste, and all that—we can develop some tillable soil so we can grow crops. And that goes in concert with the mindset we’re trying to change for a healthy lifestyle.”
Southern West Virginia, in one frustrated view, should just be evacuated. The coal jobs the communities developed around have been drying up for years: Mines close one after another, and county unemployment rates hover stubbornly above the state average. The lush and dramatic landscape, more vertical than horizontal, isn’t even all that habitable. Most of the flat places big enough to build on are taken, and they’re only flat because they’re in the floodplains. Dank, airless downtowns cling to the lower hillsides. Roads sidle between stream banks and slopes. Getting water and sewer service to homes out in the hollows has been an expensive, many-decades undertaking, and it’s still not complete.
Truth be told, a passive evacuation is already well under way. The most coal-dependent southern counties have lost a quarter, a third, even half their populations since 1980. But giving in to evacuation disregards how deep roots can grow over generations. Residents feel attached to their homeplaces, challenges and all. What if, instead of defaulting to diaspora, they could pull off something entirely different?
“Road to nowhere” may come to mind as you read this story. Or, “If we flatten it, they will come.” But to talk with the proponents of the King Coal Highway is to hear the people of a down-and-out region dreaming together a huge and vivid opportunity to thrive. Like many stories of development in West Virginia, this story could devolve to an epic battle between environment and jobs. But, like many such stories, it may not have to.
Momentum from the Mind
How the King Coal Highway came to be is a study in how necessity begets inventiveness, and how inventiveness can beget pavement.
It goes back to the 1970s. Looking for an economic boost, the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce hit on the idea of a better road to Huntington. Two-lane U.S. Route 52 along the southwestern flank of the state meandered beside river banks and snaked up and down mountainsides, a four-hour drive to go just 110 miles as the crow flies. The Bluefield group eventually found success by joining interstate transportation corridor efforts. In 1991 Congress recognized the value of an I-73/I-74 North-South Corridor connecting the Great Lakes and upper Midwest with the coast of the Carolinas, traversing West Virginia along U.S. 52, explains Mike Mitchem, who’s directed the state’s King Coal Highway Authority since soon after it was established in 1999. And in 1995 the corridor was designated the number five high priority corridor in the National Highway System. Funding for study and route design came in several chunks.
Since then? Not a lot. Given two national recessions and a general dearth of infrastructure funding, the most significant stretch that’s been built is 80 miles in North Carolina. The National I-73/I-74 Corridor Association disbanded in ’99, then formed again in 2007 to reinvigorate the project. Efforts continue: A meeting of a Virginia Senate committee on the Virginia portion was scheduled for November 10, 2014, in Martinsville, for example.
Efforts continue in West Virginia as well, where the corridor, conceived in two sections, would cut travel time between Bluefield and Huntington almost by half. The proposed 55-mile north-south Tolsia Highway between Huntington and U.S. Route 119, or Corridor G, near Williamson has three interchanges and a couple short stretches built now.
And then there’s the proposed 95-mile King Coal Highway between Corridor G at its western end and I-77 at Bluefield to the east. One might think a project bearing the charisma of King Coal could charm anything it needs from West Virginia’s coffers, but the recessions have taken their toll here, too. So far, the Bluefield originators of the concept have an interchange, a bridge, and a couple short sections.
And in Mingo County, there is proponents’ shining prototype of what this highway could do for southern West Virginia: the “Red Jacket” section of about 12 finished miles of breezy, sunny mountaintop thoroughfare.
Let’s Take a Drive
The Red Jacket section is best experienced by first driving the old valley road, along Pigeon Creek. Heading south out of Delbarton on two-lane U.S. 52, we see after three or four miles where the new road comes down off the mountain at the right. We follow 52 to the left for now, heading east through the valley. The narrow, shoulderless road winds between the creek, just below us on the right, and the hills that push up steeply beside the westbound lane. Homes dot the creek’s floodplain, some across small bridges that might be called “makeshift.” We’ll have to slow down—we’ve caught up with a log truck and there’s no way to pass.
To see this in Google Maps, search for Delbarton, then zoom out far enough to also see Gilbert to the east. Google labels this valley road 252/57 and the new, southerly parallel section 52 and King Coal Highway. In reality, locals call the valley road 52, as they’ve always done, and the mountaintop road the King Coal Highway—or, actually, the Mike Whitt Memorial Highway. More about Mike Whitt further down.
After about 10 winding miles, we turn right to take new pavement up Horsepen Mountain. The wide road curves gently upward and soon comes to a stop sign. To our left, construction to complete a three-mile extension of the Red Jacket section. We turn right onto the King Coal Highway itself: two broad lanes, with a roadbed already in place for another two lanes and a utility corridor down the center. We drive west past dramatic roadcuts, then enjoy expansive views over the central Appalachian hills and well into Kentucky. After a few miles we whiz by an athletic complex on our left, then Mingo Central High School, a 2011 consolidation of four high schools. These structures are clearly visible in Google Maps satellite view. A little farther on, a descent and a right turn take us back to Delbarton.
There may be roads like this in other places but, for valley-bound southern West Virginia, it’s a revelation. “It’s gorgeous. It’s very panoramic. I’ve been across it a thousand times and I’m still in awe,” says Kominar. The Mike Whitt Memorial Highway has reduced travel time between Gilbert and the county seat of Williamson from as much as an hour to 30 to 40 minutes, says MCRA Deputy Executive Director Leasha Johnson, and it’s much safer.
Take note: On that entire stretch, there are no bridges. “It’s unique for mountainous terrain, but that’s where the valley fills come in,” Kominar says proudly. “And when you talk about bridges you talk about a maintenance problem forever. It just works out so well.”
The Red Jacket section opened in 2011 and the school is the only active enterprise up there so far. But, luxuriating as they do on 90 flat acres the likes of which didn’t exist anywhere around before this land was mined, the school and its athletic complex have energized the county’s vision for post-mine flat-land development.
Mike Whitt, Maverick
And that goes back to Mike Whitt. “Mike had a vision for Mingo County that was simplistic, but so true,” says State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman. He encountered Whitt in the late 1980s, when he was relatively new at the DEP and Whitt was a Mingo County delegate.
“Mike’s premise was, ‘We cannot begin to revitalize the economy of Mingo County as long as it’s nasty,’” Huffman recalls. “‘The first thing we’re going to do is clean up the garbage.’ If you traveled in Mingo County in that period, you’d appreciate what he was up against. I helped with landfill tipping money, and he cleaned up over 400 illegal garbage dumps in Mingo County and it has stayed relatively clean. There was a change of mindset that had to take place.”
Changing mindsets was one approach Whitt brought to economic development. Spending OPM was another. “That’s Other People’s Money,” Huffman says. Whitt became the first director of the MCRA in 1990 and, as the King Coal Highway concept developed over the following decade, he put OPM to work. “Mike hooked up with Don Nicewonder, a coal guy,” he says. “They wanted to move all this material to mine coal. Mike’s point was, why move it twice?” Whitt and Nicewonder worked with landholding company Pocahontas Land and the permitting agencies to get the Red Jacket section permitted as a highway project, with permission to mine the coal that incidentally became available to offset the cost. Nicewonder would leave the surface as rough road grade and the state would come through and pave.
“When Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters visited in May 2004 for the groundbreaking, she said it was one of the most innovative partnerships in transportation she’d ever seen,” MCRA’s Johnson says. “The cost to the state of West Virginia and the federal government of constructing and paving the 12-mile section of the King Coal Highway under that public-private partnership was $65 million, which represented a savings of about $290 million.” There’s not enough public money anywhere to cover the $28 to $32 million it takes these days to build new highways in this topography, Kominar says. “Public-private partnerships are a unique way of doing it, and that’s exactly what Mike Whitt pulled off.”
Whitt succumbed to a long illness in 2011, not many weeks after the Red Jacket section opened to traffic. He’s remembered for his clean-ups and for his instrumental role in creating the Hatfield-McCoy off-road trail system, but he’s probably most dearly remembered for the section of road now named for him. Coal mine companies and county economic developers don’t always work so well together, Huffman says. “The way that gets done is to have a maverick like Mike Whitt.”
Building on Whitt’s Legacy
Figuring prominently in the county’s plans is the TransGas Development Systems plant that was proposed in 2008 to turn regional coal to 18,000 barrels of gasoline per day. Permitting challenges and the slow economy have put the plant behind its 2013 and revised 2015 opening dates, but Kominar says the developers are moving forward. Located on a post-mine site near the Red Jacket section, the plant would employ thousands during construction and perhaps 300 permanently, in a county where 800 or 900 are currently out of work. Related enterprises would locate in the surrounding area and employ hundreds more.
Where would all those workers live? The MCRA thinks a nearby 1,300-acre post-mine site is perfect for a planned community. “It’s going to have some nice apartments, lower-priced starter homes for younger married folks, working-class housing for the middle incomes, and I think some more expensive housing out on some of the edges,” Kominar says. The community would be unified through walking trails, greenspace, and a central shopping district. This would be a place where people could move up out of the floodplain, he says, and where children educated out of the area could return, and where workers at new enterprises could live. “There’s not a demand for this now,” he says, “but if this coal-to-liquids plant was announced tomorrow, we’d be behind.”
The MCRA is also excited about the potential for distribution. A new industrial runway built recently on post-mine land near the highway could work well with the Heartland Intermodal Gateway that will serve doublestack trains some 50 miles away at Prichard beginning in 2015—and, of course, with the entire I-73/I-74 corridor.
But what gives all this real power is that the MCRA isn’t alone in envisioning solutions to the county’s problems. “We have a lot of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, all those factors, and we started identifying stakeholders and assets in the county and ways to work together,” says Donovan Beckett. A Williamson native who went away to West Virginia University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, Beckett felt called back home a decade ago to make a difference. He started a free clinic in 2011 and later expanded it into a Federally Qualified Health Center.
Collaborations Beckett has helped instigate have brought about a farmers’ market in Williamson that expanded in each of its first four seasons and, in 2014, added a mobile market that visits other parts of the county; they’ve established a community garden that has 42 beds and a waiting list. Their Lunch Walk Program for getting people moving has been adopted by a clinic in Marin County, California, and their monthly 5K that at first attracted 20 or 30 people now gets 300.
This is what Kominar meant when he referred to farming as part of a healthy lifestyles vision for the county—it’s not lip service, it’s a many-faceted effort that has real momentum. “We plan on developing our economy based on agriculture as much as we can,” Beckett says. “We’re working with veterans to start getting them some agricultural training on these sites next year and develop entrepreneurship skills and create ways for them to make a living.” He mentions an earlier pilot program that developed a grape, peach, and apple orchard on post-mine land. “It’s a perfect case study of what we want to do—turn agriculture into an economy.”
The three-mile leg of the highway that’s still under construction will open access to a post-mine section where these leaders envision bee-friendly species on the steep slopes, orchards on the walkable slopes, and animals and crops on about 2,000 acres at the top. “We can build an agricultural park there second to none,” Kominar says.
The highway, and the developable spaces near it, are fundamental to that vision.
But It’s Gotten Much Harder
So far, the Red Jacket section sits in isolation, 12 miles of open-sky road across a puckered landscape. Consol Energy is willing to build five or six of the 10 miles between the western terminus of the Red Jacket section and Corridor G at the conclusion of its proposed 15-year Buffalo Mountain mining operation, but it’s hitting permitting roadblocks. “For the past six years it’s been a miserable, painstaking process to get that road done,” says DEP’s Huffman. “But here’s the problem. Without that section being built, what’s the point? If you can’t connect the road to Corridor G, it’s a dead end. The Buffalo Mountain permit is critical.”
A lot has changed since the early 2000s, when the Red Jacket leg was permitted as a mountaintop removal highway project with incidental coal mining. Since that time, mountaintop removal and the associated valley fills have become the subject of sit-in protests, national criticism, and scientific study of air and water pollution. Among the most damaging pollution is high stream conductivity—essentially, salinity. “It has devastating impacts on native macroinvertebrate insect communities. And in the last year, two studies have come out showing it also has devastating effects on salamander populations,” says Peter Morgan, a staff attorney with the national Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program. Morgan has been involved in preparing technical comments on the Coalfields Expressway in Virginia, which includes significant surface coal mining; he is careful to note that he has not been involved directly with the King Coal Highway and can speak only generally. “Once the fill material is placed in a stream in Appalachia, we know two things: It’s going to give off high conductivity pollution, and it’s very difficult to treat.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ramped up its scrutiny of proposed mountaintop mining projects, requiring engineering that minimizes downstream effects. But building highways by this method can actually increase the effects, depending on topography, Morgan says. “One concern with these coal-synergy highway projects is, they often involve fills in a lot of headwater streams in the same watershed—meaning much more cumulative impacts downstream,” he says. It’s related to the very lack of bridges Kominar noted as a maintenance boon. “Whereas traditional highway projects make extensive use of bridges and culverts when they have to cross streams, these mining projects instead fill the streams with the mine spoil—again, with downstream impacts,” Morgan says.
There’s another hurdle. Consol is seeking variances to keep about 800 acres alongside the proposed roadbed flat, rather than meeting the legal requirement of returning it after mining to a natural contour—those buildable spaces that, for local development officials, are much of the point. But the EPA, Kominar says, doesn’t believe all that flat land is needed. It’s true there are thousands of acres already near the Red Jacket section and Corridor G that haven’t been developed yet—though not all in Mingo County. Is any amount too much? “You can’t have enough land,” Kominar protests. He ticks off again the MCRA’s agriculture, manufacturing, and housing aspirations, and then irrepressibly mentions another hope. “We’re working on ideas for commercial kitchens where individual farmers or producers can take their goods to a central co-op that would buy them and market them to grocery stores or what have you—or make products with them. We have a lot of people who make great salsa, breads, those kinds of things.” Ideas like these might seem pie-in-the-sky if the MCRA and its partners hadn’t already accomplished quite a lot.
Huffman complains that federal permitting agencies keep raising the bar: After the usual Environmental Impact Study, regulators wanted a supplemental Environmental Impact Study, and then a study of the northern long-eared bat, which is under consideration for “endangered” status. But he’s most frustrated with the possible loss of the side tracts. “The biggest tragedy that could happen if this road is ever built is to not have land along the corridor to develop,” he says. He notes an irony. “The government talks about migrating away from coal and going to a less coal-dependent economy and society—this is it. Put your money where your mouth is.”
Minimizing Stream Impacts
It may be possible to get past the typical “environment versus jobs” battle. More than likely, any mine plans proposed for the corridor could, at least, be improved. Morgan Worldwide Consultants of Lexington, Kentucky, has a track record of creating alternate mine plans that meet a broad range of project goals.
“We’ve looked at a number of projects that try to minimize stream impacts at the same time as recovering the same amount of coal for a project,” says company founder and Vice President John Morgan—not to be confused with the Sierra Club’s Peter Morgan. John Morgan describes a project for James River Coal in which his company created an alternate plan for a mine-highway project that ultimately would extend Kentucky Route 680 in Floyd County. “There was concern that it was going to cause problems at the EPA,” he says. “We looked at the road orientation and alignment and at other disposal areas for the excess spoil. Our plan retained the amount of coal recovery and the amount of developable land originally proposed, and minimized the stream impacts.” Morgan Worldwide helped cut the number of stream miles buried by Patriot Coal’s Hobet 45 mine in West Virginia from six to three several years ago, and has worked on a number of mine-highway projects.
The first design is not always the best one, Morgan says. “Questioning it can often result in a better project.”
End to End
When it comes to mountaintop removal mining, the lines are pretty well drawn: Either you’re for it, or you’re against it. There’s not a lot of nuance in the discussion.
And a mine plan that minimizes stream damage doesn’t address every question about the King Coal Highway. What about mountaintop removal mining’s particulate air pollution, which can cause respiratory problems for residents nearby? Would this highway help the region’s downtowns—Matewan, Pineville, Welch, Williamson—or hurt them? Is there going to be enough market for coal to finish much more of the highway? If there is, can we find a way to be OK with losing dozens more mountains, in addition to the ones that have already been cut down in the name of coal and economy?
But it does, in part, address another question we have to ask: If the people of Mingo County have a constructive idea for pulling themselves out of this intractable situation, and their example could be extended to similarly hard-up McDowell and Wyoming counties, how can the rest of us help?
Asked if he believes the King Coal Highway will ever be built end to end, Kominar says, “That’s going to be a push, to be honest with you. We can only take care of Mingo County, and we’re working diligently for that.” The King Coal Highway Authority’s Mitchem gives a stunningly optimistic estimate of 10 to 15 years—sooner than Buffalo Mountain would be mined out if it were permitted today. Asked what’s realistic, he pushes back just a little to 15 to 20 years.
Huffman, in his long experience, takes comfort in the knowledge that politics change. “In the case of the King Coal Highway, that will be a good thing,” he says. “I’d like to think this road is going to get built some day before I die. I’d like to drive from 64 in Huntington to 77 in Bluefield—that’s what it was for.” He adds, “Southern West Virginia can be an economic boon with this highway. Without it, it will be a liability to the state. There’s no middle ground.”