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

On Oct. 7, a Southwest Virginia nonprofit called the Mountain Heritage Project posted a video to YouTube. It opens to a drone’s-eye panorama of what looks like a massive pile of dirt and rock in Clinchco, Virginia, so big it makes the bulldozers and trucks at its base look toy-sized.

“There’s not a better place to burn gob, because under all of those restrictions, what comes out of the smoke stack is nothing compared to one gob pile catching on fire,” Frank Kilgore, the project’s coordinator, says to the camera as somber piano music plays in the background. 

Gob? Kilgore is referring to the stuff the bulldozers are digging. Short for “garbage of bituminous” and also called culm, coal waste, boney and slate, it’s a mix of low-quality coal, clay, rock and other material: junk that mining companies dumped beside their operations throughout Southwest Virginia’s coalfields and other parts of Appalachia before federal cleanup standards were enacted in 1977.

The video explains the environmental hazards gob poses when left out in the open–namely, water contamination and air pollution–then pivots to a solution: getting rid of it by burning it at the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a Wise County power plant owned by Dominion Energy. (Editor’s note: Dominion is one of our donors; donations have no influence on our news decisions.)

“I can’t think of a better way to do it than have [the gob] repurposed, reclaimed and recycled in a power plant that has the most stringent restrictions on air quality emissions in the United States,” Kilgore says with a confident smile. “It’s the only game in town.”

The video’s release roughly a month before the Virginia November elections reflects the economic anxieties swirling around VCHEC, whose future has been heavily contested in relation to the 2020 Clean Economy Act ushered into law by Democrats.

But the film highlights a reality that Southwest Virginians of all viewpoints seem to agree on: The region’s gob needs to go. Beyond that, though, very little is clear, from how big and how urgent a problem it is to the best way to get rid of it. 

YouTube video
This is the video posted by Mountain Heritage about the problem of waste coal, known as “gob.”

A decades-old problem

The gob piles that dot Southwest Virginia reflect an older, cruder era of mining in the state, said Tarah Kesterson, a public relations manager for the Virginia Department of Energy.

“Basically, before there was a lot of technology in the preparation part of coal before it was sold, they weren’t able to separate as much coal from rock as they are now,” Kesterson said.

That made for a lot of coal waste, and up until about 40 years ago, coal companies could dump the less pure coal they didn’t want without much thought.

“They would throw the crushed coal, the slack coal, down the hill, and also into creeks,” said Kilgore, a native of the coalfields. “We called it slate piles. And they would catch on fire through spontaneous combustion and stink of sulfur 24/7.”

The dumping generally stopped in 1977 with the passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Among other things, the law required mining companies to pay reclamation fees to fund the costs of reclaiming gob piles and other abandoned mine sites.

Kesterson said that today, there are about 245 known gob piles in the coalfields and a few other parts of the state, but said that her colleagues in the department’s mined land repurposing program think there are more that haven’t yet been identified.

The gob piles also vary widely in size, Kilgore said. Some can be pretty small. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Clinchco gob pile shown in the video is “100 feet deep, probably 1,500 feet long and a couple hundred feet, three hundred feet wide,” he said. “It probably has a half million tons in it, that one gob pile.”

Asked how much gob those piles represent, Kilgore estimated between 50 to 100 million tons just for Virginia. But the energy department doesn’t have any such total, Kesteron said.

“There is no way to estimate what remains based on tonnage,” she said.

Real but fuzzy risks

Leaving that coal-rich waste where it was dumped carries clear environmental hazards, Kesterson said. For one thing, it can leach iron, manganese and aluminum, produce acid drainage and release sediment and coal fines–tiny coal particles–all of which can damage waterways. 

As Kilgore said in the Mountain Heritage Project video, gob piles can also spontaneously combust, generating large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane–greenhouse gases that drive climate change–along with carbon monoxide, mercury and other toxic substances.

But Matt Hepler, an environmental scientist with the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, said that those risks differ in intensity from site to site. 

“Some of these gob sites–and this is true of many [abandoned mine land] features, too–are actively producing water pollution,” he said. “But it’s not universal. A lot of it depends on the underlying geology that was present when the mining was happening, and also how exposed the gob sites are, how big they were, how long they’ve been there. There’s actually a lot of variables to consider in the determination of how bad the water quality is.” 

Kesterson also said that while there have been documented instances of gob piles spontaneously combusting in Virginia–one happened in Dickenson County in 2008, for example–it isn’t common in Virginia. And gob piles rarely make it to the top of the energy department’s abandoned mine lands cleanup list, she said. 

“Our job is to look at all of these [AML] features and say, Ok, which ones are most dangerous to people…or the most harmful to the environment, and so we rank them 1, 2 and 3,” Kesterson said. “It’s not typical that a gob pile is a priority 1.” 

“If we had all the money in the world, every feature is important to us and we would love to clean up every abandoned mine feature in Virginia,” she added. “But because we’re limited to a certain amount of funding, that’s why we have this ranking system.” 

A controversial solution

In 2012, Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center opened its doors as Dominion’s newest power plant, and it boasted an unusual feature: the ability to burn gob alongside regular coal and biomass.  

Most of Virginia’s coal-burning plants must close by 2024 under the Clean Economy Act, but VCHEC obtained an exception allowing it to remain open through 2045. Proponents of the plant–which, according to Dominion, supports hundreds of jobs and annually generates millions in tax revenue for the region–argue that burning gob there is less hazardous than letting it burn or pollute waterways in the coalfields.

“VCHEC was built with the intent of using waste fuels…in a manner that minimizes emissions to the atmosphere,” Geoffrey Hinson, the plant’s manager, said. “We use a state-of-the-art air quality control system, a circulating fluidized bed boiler and a fully encapsulated industrial landfill that are designed to minimize any environmental impacts of waste coal as well as run-of-mill coal and biomass.”

“We’re not only creating energy, but we’re also cleaning up hazardous coal waste…that otherwise will sit there and cause even more of a hazard,” state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, said of VCHEC. “I think once you explain that, suddenly everyone can come to the same agreement that this isn’t a bad thing and this is something that we should be supportive of.”

But VCHEC hasn’t always followed its emission requirements: As reported in the Virginia Mercury, in less than a decade of operating, the facility has paid the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality more than $150,000 in fines for emitting more particulate matter, hydrochloric acid and other substances than its permit allows, as well as for failing to perform routine testing. 

The plant also only burns about 25-30% gob, Hinson said. By itself, the stuff easily clumps and clogs the facility’s machinery–it gobs–so it has to be mixed with other fuel, mostly regular coal. And the plant has seldom run at full capacity in recent years, according to reports about the plant’s activity from Dominion staff.

Even without those complications, burning gob means emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases. VCHEC’s annual greenhouse gas emissions have regularly topped 2.8 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent; that’s an amount roughly equal to driving 615,000 passenger vehicles for a year.  

“It’s a hard, hard issue,” Hepler said of burning gob. “You’re kind of pitting water quality versus climate change–kind of like immediate problems versus long-term problems. And those water quality problems are not universal…. And then you’ve got to compare that to the cost of climate change.”

Few other options

A team of law professors and students at the Grundy-based Appalachian School of Law is currently investigating and comparing the benefits of leaving gob where it is, extracting and burning it, and extracting and storing it, said ASL Dean of Students and Professor Chad Dotson. 

“We’re coming at it from an environmental justice perspective in that these gob piles are an environmental hazard one way or the other,” Dotson said. “At the end of the day, we expect the report to just kind of lay out what the different environmental and economic challenges are.”

Dominion is a partial funder of the study, Dotson said, but he said the company “has not worked to influence the study in any way.” 

At the moment, nobody seems to have better ideas than leaving gob where it is or burning it. Kilgore said it’s unsafe to simply cover up the gob piles.

“If you bury them with dirt, they catch on fire,” he said. 

Hepler, in contrast, said it might be possible to cover up and reclaim some gob piles. But that would be more expensive than burning it, he said, and the state’s abandoned mine land fund is “definitely underfunded right now.”

If the federal infrastructure bill stalled in Congress passes, it will provide about $11.3 billion in additional funds to the federal Abandoned Mine Land program. 

“I’m hopeful that this…infrastructure bill will eventually pass and this large infusion of dollars will come in and help clean up some of these sites, and maybe after we get it at the federal level, we can start exploring better ways to clean up gob that [don’t] involve burning it,” Hepler said.

“It’s tricky with gob,” he added. “The whole thing is a complicated narrative.”

Sarah Wade is an award-winning freelance reporter and writer based in Bristol, a city straddling Northeast...