A pile of waste coal near Clinchco in Dickenson County. Photo courtesy of Frank Kilgore.

For many, Southwest Virginia is a far-away place. It is rural and many of our people are poor, but it is spoiled by some of the most beautiful land and streams in America.  

Right now, the region is facing an environmental challenge that should be a priority for all Virginians. 

Like many other far Southwest Virginia residents, my lineage goes back to coal miners, starting in the 1890s when Southwest Virginia first mined coal commercially on a large scale. Beyond coal, my ties to the coalfields run deep – my family settled here in the 18th century and I have made it my life’s mission to provide options for our young people to stay here and become the coalfield leaders and job creators of tomorrow.  

To help grow jobs and protect our environment, I have advocated for more stringent regulations of surface mining. I was named the state’s conservationist of the year for finding pragmatic solutions for land reclamation and protecting nearby homes and water sources from blasting.  

Fifty years later, we have a 100-year old problem right under our feet: waste coal or GOB. Early on, the industry used inefficient technologies to process mined coal that resulted in considerable amounts of waste being dumped wherever it was convenient. Despite technological advances in the coal mining processes and laws reforming waste disposal and reclamation in the 1970s, these piles of waste coal remain – damaging the landscape, eroding into our streams and in some cases catching on fire and burning uncontrolled. 

This waste coal by-product of earlier mining practices pollutes our creeks and rivers during each rain event and poisons the air when particles of coal catch on fire through spontaneous combustion or forest fires. I remember growing up smelling smoldering GOB piles and thought that was normal. It is not normal and GOB piles are prone to catch fire again and again for thousands of years to come if we don’t do something about it. 

As the Roanoke Times editorial board showcased last year, there are “at least 105 gob piles across Southwest Virginia covering more than 421 acres … in excess of 100 million tons — with every rainstorm leeching that waste coal into the groundwater or nearby streams. These legacy waste coal piles have not been a priority for reclaiming. 

For years, the solution has been to leave these waste coal piles as-is or cover them up with a couple feet of dirt and grass, which isn’t a real solution at all. Dirt cover is a leaky, temporary patch and an excuse to pass the ongoing pollution to future generations. Sealed landfills would cost billions of dollars and would not stop spontaneous combustion over time. 

Thankfully, we now have the technology to reclaim these gob piles while allowing Southwest Virginia to continue powering our state. This capacity helps improve our environment and generate jobs and economic growth. For example, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center supports hundreds of direct and indirect jobs and is the only facility in Virginia specifically designed to utilize waste coal as a fuel. The combustion technology utilized at the VCHEC plant along with its air emission controls system and stringent air pollution permit provides a safe and efficient method for cleaning up these waste coal piles. 

My late brother-in-law, Senator Ben Chafin, ensured that this transformative work could continue by saving VCHEC from an early demise through a bipartisan compromise. We should not assume that the Virginia General Assembly will let that 2045 deadline stand and we should encourage projects like VCHEC that reclaim and reuse GOB to expand. 

For 20 years, Mountain Heritage has been advocating for and facilitating pragmatic conservation solutions, outdoor recreation, education, and mentoring at-risk youths. While we have made many strides, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Continuing gob cleanup and reclamation is a win-win for rural Virginia, our environment, and the economy and this progress must continue. I encourage Virginia legislators to support waste coal cleanup and all Virginians to support of a brighter future for our young folks and those to come. 

 Frank Kilgore, attorney, book author, and project coordinator of Mountain Heritage, a nonprofit conservation group in the Upper Clinch River watershed, home of the largest concentration of rare and endangered species of aquatic life in North America.