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

The great challenge facing coal country is how to build a post-coal economy in such challenging topography.

But what if part of a post-coal economy involved coal, and in a way that even the greenest environmentalist could support?

That’s the tantalizing prospect suggested in a recent report from the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy. The school’s Natural Resources Law Center – with help from Econsult Solutions, a Philadelphia consultant – has produced a 92-page report on the problem of waste coal in Southwest Virginia.

These mining by-products are better known in coal country as “gob,” which the report tells us stands for “Garbage of Bituminous,” which would be a great name for a heavy metal band. Garbage is certainly one way to think of the gob piles. Environmental contamination is another. This may seem pretty tame stuff except for this: The subject of gob in Southwest Virginia and what to do about it leads us into some politically charged territory, one that involves such hot-button topics as the Clean Economy Act, Dominion Energy and the state’s most controversial energy plant. This report doesn’t shy away from any of that, but doesn’t say what some might think it would say.

First, the lay of the land: Nobody really knows how much gob coal is lying around Southwest Virginia. The Virginia Department of Energy (which prefers the shortened title of Virginia Energy, even though that sounds like a power company) has identified 245 such piles – more than 80 in Buchanan County alone – but this report notes that inventory is “acknowledged to be incomplete,” although it probably does cover the biggest sites. As for just how much gob is in these 245 sites (“pile” suggests something smaller and more compact than what some of these are), nobody knows that, either, because they’ve never been fully surveyed. Some sites that have been cleaned up in the past were pretty darned massive, though. More than 1 million tons were hauled away from the Hurricane Creek site in Russell County when it was cleaned up in 2014.

These gob piles are environmental hazards in multiple ways. They leach into the groundwater or nearby streams. That Hurricane Creek site released about 200 tons of waste coal into the Clinch River each year before it was cleaned up, the report says. So much waste coal flowed into Stone Creek in Lee County that the Department of Environmental Quality found it to be “lacking the ability to sustain aquatic life.” Some catch fire and once they start smoldering, those gob fires are hard to put out. The report says the federal government’s Abandoned Mine Land program has spent $1.75 million in Virginia dealing with gob pile fires. If you didn’t understand just how different Virginia’s coal counties are from the rest of the state, now you’re beginning to. The Notorious B.I.G. said this better when he sang “If you don’t know, now you know.” At the very least, these gob piles are in many cases taking up space that could be better used for something else. Most of the piles are also within 10 miles of the region’s major towns, “posing not only a health hazard but also a blight to both quality of life and real estate values.”

That leads to this report’s biggest conclusion: “Whether considered from an environmental, public health or economic development perspective, all efforts should be made to remediate legacy GOB piles in southwest Virginia.”

“All efforts” seems pretty strong language.

The report then goes on to make five recommendations:

  1. “A programmatic effort should be undertaken to remediate the GOB piles in southwest Virginia.” Well, yes. This section goes on to say “remediation can take different forms, and the most appropriate form of remediation for one GOB pile may not be suitable for another.” Some, the report says, can be “remediated in place” – i.e., covered up with dirt and vegetation. Some can be excavated, with the debris hauled to lined landfills. Others could be – well, let’s hold off on this third option for a while.
  2. Virginia should conduct a site-by-site analysis of the state’s inventory of GOB piles to include information that will allow the state to prioritize remediation efforts and determine the most appropriate method of remediation for each site.” Sounds straightforward enough.
  3. Virginia should launch a GOB pile remediation initiative that employs coal industry workers and reclassifies GOB pile remediation as a top priority for its AML funds.” To my eye, this is the money quote. Unless it’s the follow-up one that says Virginia should launch an “aggressive” remediation program. The report says there’s now a lot of money available for this. The recent federal infrastructure law sets aside $11.3 billion for the Abandoned Mine Land program. Furthermore, that law “affords Virginia new authority – when expending AML funds appropriated under the bill – to assign any level of priority to AML reclamation projects so long as they provide employment for current and former employees of the coal industry.” President Joe Biden ought to be flying down to coal country to talk this up. Hillary Clinton said she’d put a lot of coal miners out of work (never mind if that was somewhat out of context); here Biden could rightfully claim he’s putting a lot of coal miners back to work (just not mining coal). It sounds like there’s enough gob to keep people busy for some time. Context: In 2001, there were 190 active mines in Virginia; now there are 62. That means there are more piles of mine waste than there are mines – and have been for more than two decades. Put another way, we have almost four times as many mine waste piles as we do mines. Fashion a program to use some of those AML funds for gob piles, and you have something that’s good for both employment and the environment. Politicians from both parties should be rushing to claim credit for this. That leads to the report’s fourth recommendation:
     
  4. In its 2022 AML grant application (and in future years), Virginia Energy should request sufficient funds to cover GOB pile remediation efforts.” That also seems pretty straightforward. And then there’s the final recommendation:
  5. Virginia should create an atmosphere conducive to the remediation of GOB piles, to obtaining funding for such remediation efforts, and to providing the tools so that funding could be accessible for private entities, localities, and non-profits.” This sounds like just a lot of words but some of the specifics listed under here are pretty interesting. It repeats and amplifies the employment point above: “Virginia should create a program, or provide incentives for the creation of such a program, to employ and/or retrain displaced miners to work on remediation projects.”

So what’s not being said here? Where’s all the controversy I promised about the Clean Economy Act and Dominion Energy? Don’t worry, we’re getting there.

One of the ways Southwest Virginia has been getting rid of gob coal so far has been to truck it to Dominion Energy’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County and burn it – that’s why Virginia City is called a “hybrid” energy center, because it burns a mix of coal, gob coal and the occasional biomass. Environmentalists hated Virginia City before it was even opened in 2012 because they don’t want to see any new coal plants being built, and they’ve hated it even more ever since, for that and lots of other reasons. Southwest Virginia legislators, on the other hand, seem much in love with Virginia City because it’s a big employer and, directly or indirectly, responsible for about 400 jobs in a part of the state where jobs are hard to come by. The Clean Economy Act requires most coal plants in Virginia to close by 2024, but Southwest legislators won an exemption to extend the life of Virginia City to 2045. Environmentalists would still like to see Virginia City closed early. Meanwhile, state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, has introduced a bill to exempt Virginia City permanently from the Clean Economy Act. Closing now, or closing never – those are two diametrically opposed options.

This ASL report was partially funded by Dominion Energy, so if you’re the cynical type, you might think it would fully embrace Virginia City as an option. It does not. ASL’s dean of students, Chad Dotson, told Cardinal last fall that Dominion “has not worked to influence the study in any way.”  For what it’s worth, Dominion is also one of our funders, and under our rules funders have no influence on editorial decisions. (You can help fund us, too, and also have no influence on editorial decisions – here’s how.)

Instead, this report points out that burning gob at Virginia City is an option, but it also notes that it’s at odds with the Clean Economy Act’s goal of phasing out fossil fuels. Ultimately the report makes no recommendations about whether Virginia City should stay or go. If environmentalists were fearing – and Southwest legislators were hoping – that this report would embrace Virginia City, they won’t find that here.

On the contrary, they will find some unflattering facts and figures about Virginia City. The one most relevant and unflattering here: The amount of gob being turned at Virginia City has gone down. It peaked at 615,000 tons – the plant’s second year of operation – and has gone down ever since. In 2020, the last full year for which the report has data, only 214,600 tons of gob were burned at Virginia City. That year the plant operated at just 16% capacity. On the one hand, Virginia City sure seems to have the capacity to burn more gob, but there doesn’t seem to be sufficient market demand for the plant’s power to justify more generation. In any event, Virginia City doesn’t seem to be burning much gob. Since we don’t know how much gob is out there, we don’t know what percentage of gob Virginia City is getting rid of, but whatever the percentage is, it’s a declining percentage.

Even if Virginia City did burn more gob, it can’t burn all the gob in Southwest Virginia. The report says only piles within 45 miles of the plant are economically feasible due to transportation costs. That covers 186 sites but leaves at least 59 others out of range. Furthermore, the report says that small sites within the 45-mile range may not be economically feasible for Virginia City, either, “due to the fixed costs associated with removal and remediation efforts.” That’s a long way of saying that even if Virginia City did get a permanent reprieve, it’s not the sole answer to dealing with gob. On the other hand, right now, it’s the main way that gob is removed, the report says, so if Virginia City is shut down early, somebody’s going to have to figure out what to do about all that gob. Surely, people outside the coalfields who are keen to shut down a coal plant wouldn’t leave the region with no mechanism to deal with gob, right? Keep in mind that when Democrats controlled the General Assembly, they repealed coal tax credits – some of which helped fund the region’s main economic development agency – but did nothing to replace those funds. Instead, what they offered in return was a mere study.

It would sure be helpful if those most keen to shut down Virginia City would be equally as engaged on the gob question. It would also be helpful if they were engaged on some other facts and figures in this report that are somewhat inconvenient for the environmental side. The taxes and other fees that Virginia City pays account for 14% of the budget in Wise County and 50% of the budget for the town of St. Paul. Those who want to close Virginia City may be trying to save the planet – the place has produced 25.5 million tons of emissions over the past decade – but they seem intentionally blind to the hurt that they would inflict on this particular corner of the planet. Can those who want to shutter Virginia City come up with a solution that would replace those taxes for Wise County and St. Paul – and replace the jobs and $25 million to $40 million economic impact that the plant currently provides? Would a Marshall Plan to clean up gob in ways other than burning at Virginia City do that? I have no idea and the report doesn’t say, but it would sure be interesting to know, wouldn’t it?

While the report doesn’t endorse Virginia City as an option, it does look at ways the plant could play a role in gob remediation if it stays open – and what funding might be available. For instance, that federal infrastructure law sets aside money for a Rare Earth Elements Demonstration Facility, “which funds the design, construction, and build-out of a facility that can demonstrate the commercial feasibility of a rare earth element extraction and separation facility and refinery.” We know a lot of rare earths – a category of elements that are key to certain technologies – can be found in coal and waste coal; the trick is extracting them economically. Could Virginia City be repurposed for that? The report doesn’t say but poses an interesting question. It also points out that federal funding is available under the infrastructure bill for “projects designing energy and mineral research facilities” and “projects conducting research to advance critical mineral mining, recycling, and reclamation strategies.” The report notes that “Depending on the type of project, a partnership with the Appalachian School of Law, Virginia Tech, or other colleges and universities may provide an avenue to obtain federal funding to combat GOB piles in southwest Virginia.”

This report is conveniently timed, coming out near the beginning of a General Assembly, a new state budget cycle and, of course, a new governor. Southwest Virginia often wonders whether anyone in Richmond is paying attention to its problems. Whether this report produces any action will be one good way to tell. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.