Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards Challenges Turkey Branch MTR Mine

By Willie Dodson

On the morning of October 11th, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) members met with officials from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to voice our opposition to JW Construction Company’s proposed Turkey Branch Surface Mine in a proceeding called an informal conference. JW Construction Company is owned and operated by Jerry Wharton, who was the CEO of A&G Coal Corporation in 2004 when activities on A&G’s Looney Ridge mine resulted in a boulder being dislodged, rolling down the mountainside and into a home, and killing three year-old Jeremy Davidson.

The proposed permit boundary covers 108 acres along an approximately one mile-long strip of ridgeline and hillside directly above homes, farms, and streams. It is situated about 3 miles north of the town of Wise, close to UVA Wise, and within a half mile of the Wise County Fairgrounds.

“Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards opposes this permit application because any possible short term gains are not worth the long term impacts on community health, land, and water,” said SAMS president Taysha DeVaughan. “Jerry Wharton is a bad actor and it would be irresponsible to entrust him with operation of this permit.”

“Jerry Wharton has a history of illegal and dangerous mining practices,” said Laura Miller, a SAMS member from Wise. “His actions caused the death of a toddler, who was crushed by a dislodged boulder while sleeping in his bed. He cannot be trusted to do business in a responsible way.”

Laura Miller
Adam Malle

During the informal conference, SAMS members expressed opposition to the mining application, citing Jerry Wharton’s record of regulatory non-compliance (including the violations that lead to the death of Jeremy Davidson), and the likely sedimentation of Turkey Branch, Dale Branch, and Dotson Creek if the permit is granted. SAMS also passed along the concerns of individuals who live near the mine, both verbally and in writing, regarding dust, blasting, flyrock and other threats to their health, safety, and quality-of-life.Down

“I have experienced the impacts of strip mining where I lived before,” said Anna Bolling of Dale Branch in a written statement to the DMME submitted by SAMS. “I am concerned about impacts on water and health, and I hope this permit will be denied.”

In addition to the five SAMS members who spoke against the permit application, two individuals spoke in favor of the mine.  Gerald Collins, an engineer working for JW Construction, lamented the audacity of community members who express concerns about blasting and dust, as every coal mine requires blasting and creates dust. Collins also cherry-picked a handful of examples of development on strip-mined land to assert that clear-cutting the forest and blowing up the ridgeline within the proposed permit area would improve the value of nearby properties. The other vocal strip-mine supporter, Charlie Bentley, seized on SAMS’ persistent grievance against Jerry Wharton for overseeing the operations that killed Jeremy Davidson, suggesting that the three-year-old’s death was the will of God.

In advance of this meeting, SAMS members went door-to-door along Turkey Branch Road to discuss the potential impacts of mining in the area, and to inform residents of their rights regarding pre-blast surveys, special protections for cemeteries, and how to communicate concerns to the DMME. Residents expressed alarm at the prospect of a mountaintop removal mine going in above their homes, but few were aware of the application prior to discussing it with SAMS. This prompted SAMS to urge the DMME to improve state requirements for public notification of surface mining applications. Gabby Gillespie, a SAMS member and Big Stone Gap resident who has lived adjacent to mountaintop removal mines, and whose family members have worked on such mines said,

“I understand how the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act works, or how it doesn’t work in many cases - and this is one of them. The requirement in order to let residents know about a proposed strip mine coming close to their homes is an announcement in the local newspaper, but no one that I spoke to on Turkey Branch had time to read the paper between battling cancer, and caring for sick and elderly loved ones. They didn’t see the announcement, and had SAMS not visited and spoken with them, they would not have even known any of this was happening.”

The DMME has 60 days from the date of the informal conference to deny or approve the permit application.