A roaring industrial fan across the road forces Barry Compton to raise his voice. “It’s blowing air into the mines,” says Compton, explaining that the noise means fresh air for the crews working deep underground in the Laurel Mountain Mine.
Compton, the mine superintendent, points downhill to a conveyor bringing coal to the surface and into a blue-walled structure for sorting. He fields questions about mining techniques, machinery, the size and depth of the coal seam, and safety—a staple of recent national media coverage.
It’s just the sort of curiosity and conversation that organizers hoped this field trip would inspire. Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s largest coal producers, is hosting this tour of active mines and reclamation projects for research scientists, state and federal agency representatives, and interested citizens.
"Coal Mining and the Aquatic Environment"
Meanwhile, mining officials and regulators are canoeing the Clinch River, visiting a hatchery, and learning about imperiled freshwater mussels and other inhabitants of the Clinch and Powell rivers. All are gathered here in the rugged mountains of southwestern Virginia for the first-ever “Coal Mining and the Aquatic Environment” symposium, cosponsored by the Conservancy.
“About a year ago, we realized the need for a symposium to assess the state of rare species and coal-mining trends, and then to discuss how the two intersect here in the Clinch-Powell system,” says Brad Kreps, Clinch Valley Program director. “For the first time, mining regulators, industry representatives and conservation groups are coming together. We hope the field trips and presentations increase our understanding of one another—and perhaps foster an appreciation for the stewardship and restoration we all do.”
The following morning in Abingdon, opening presentations by Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant Jr. and Secretary of Commerce and Trade Patrick O. Gottschalk crystallize the impetus behind the symposium. Some of the world’s most diverse natural systems, from rivers to forests, overlap major coal sources throughout the Central Appalachians—and nowhere is this convergence more striking than here in the Clinch Valley.
Mussel Population is Declining
The very survival of 19 rare fish species and 28 globally rare mussels—43 varieties in all—is a remarkable testament to the quality of the Clinch River system. But their hold on existence is perhaps more tenuous than ever, as recent trends show mussel declines in significant stretches of river.
During the concluding panel discussion, Dr. Richard Neves, a mussel expert from symposium co-host Virginia Tech, says, “The mussels have been drinking river water for the past 30 years, and they’re dying out.”
“If coal does have something to do with that, I want to be part of the solution,” says Alpha’s John Paul Jones. Jones joins others in voicing support for a working group to push for a shared research, funding and land-restoration agenda. “We just need somebody leading the team, a quarterback,” Jones adds.
The participants also conclude that the complex causes behind the mussel declines go beyond historic and active coal mining. Accidental spills along transportation corridors, urban runoff, illegal dumps and poor land management also stress the fragile Clinch system.
In closing the conference, Kreps acknowledges the range of conservation and restoration activities occurring throughout the Clinch Valley. Finally, he pledges Conservancy assistance in pursuing the shared goal of improving river stewardship: “We need to build on the momentum of this symposium and develop a clear, shared conservation vision that balances natural resource development with the protection of these globally important rivers.”