First longwall mine in six years underway

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Score one for King Coal in northern Appalachia. Today’s boom in the coalfields of southwestern Pennsylvania — where the 42.7 million tons extracted in 2007 fetches double its price ($111 a ton) of just two years ago ($45) — is giving rise to a new mine.

Foundation Coal Holdings, the nation’s fourth largest producer of underground coal, has announced plans to build a mine in the rural hinterlands of southwestern Pennsylvania, where it already runs two operations that use a little-known but devastating extraction method, “longwall mining.” The focus of a new Center investigation, longwall mining represents the most brutal technology yet available to rip the coal out from belowground as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

The region’s first longwall operation in six years, Foundation Mine will center on 305 acres in Holbrook, Pennsylvania. According to its permit application, which consists of seven encyclopedic binders (now pending review by the state Department of Environmental Protection), the company has proposed a footprint snaking beneath 9,438 acres in two townships. Employing some 500 people, Foundation Mine is slated to open in 2013.

The news hasn’t come as much of a surprise to folks in the coalfields. “Nobody is thrilled to have it here,” says Terri Davin, an organizer at the Center for Coalfield Justice, in Washington, Pennsylvania, whose greenhouse sits just beyond the site. She equates the looming mine with the devastation that she’s witnessed elsewhere in the region, which is already home to six longwall operations.

Davin and fellow activists have submitted comments to DEP on the permit application, in an attempt to remind the agency of the damage associated with longwall mining. The Center’s investigation found the technique collapses the surface so dramatically that houses are shaken apart, and the water and wildlife disappear from the land. But mining opponents hold out little hope that state regulators will put a halt to a project that represents new jobs.

Foundation Coal officials declined to comment, but Terry Dayton, the company’s environmental manager, boasted about the mine’s promise to the local Observer-Reporter. “It’s going to provide a lot of jobs,” he said, “and provide the country with a lot of energy, too.”

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