Charles Rotkin / Corbis

Coal country unruffled by strip mining in flourishing Egypt Valley

Despite blow to Ohio wildlife, locals see environmental upside, are more concerned with fracking in their backyards

PIEDMONT, Ohio — The Egypt Valley Wildlife Area is a tribute to what can happen after land is strip-mined of its coal and restored to nature. The area, state-owned land in eastern Ohio, is 18,011 acres of rolling hills, wetlands and grasslands. There is the 2,270-acre Piedmont Lake, popular with boaters and campers, and as one would expect in a wildlife area, there is wildlife. River otters were introduced in 1993, and black bears have made their home there, among the deer and wild turkeys.

For decades, this land was strip-mined for coal. But in the 1990s, Ohio began purchasing the land, transforming it into a magnet for animals, birdwatchers, hikers, hunters, fishermen and tourists.

However, much of the state's and nature's hard work is now at risk, ever since July, when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) granted the Oxford Mining Co. a permit to strip-mine coal there. The company plans to mine underneath 741 acres for coal and to surface-mine 200 acres.

It isn't exactly the talk of the town, said Kristen Paynter, a manager at Jane by Food, a restaurant in Belmont that specializes in Angus burgers and is several miles from an access road into the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area.

“People aren't saying much. I don't think they really realize what's going on, or maybe they do, but they're not talking to me about it,” she said.

She has lived in the area for about three and a half years and isn't thrilled by the idea of seeing surface-mining equipment invading the wildlife area. But she understands why locals aren't chaining themselves to trees and insisting the rugged terrain be left alone.

This is coal country, and Paynter, a mother of three and a self-described liberal with a background in social work, is the wife of a coal miner.

On the one hand, she said, “I do care about the environment and worry about what will be around for my children.” And on the other hand, she said, the coal industry has been good to her family. “We get provided great health insurance and great benefits through my husband's employer.”

Formations like this highwall are a result of strip mining. Before Ohio passed a reclamation law in 1977, mined lands went unrestored.
Cheryl Harner

Jack Cera also hasn't heard any griping from locals. He is a Democratic state representative for Ohio House District 96, which includes portions of Belmont County, the county encompassing much of Egypt Valley, although the wildlife area doesn't quite hit his district. “There’s not a whole great concern,” he said.

Republican state Rep. Andy Thompson, who represents District 95, which includes most of the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area, wasn't available for an interview, his office said. Oxford Mining's parent company, Westmoreland Resource Partners in Colorado, also denied Al Jazeera’s interview request.

Though he hasn't heard any negative or positive comments from constituents, Cera, who was born in Belmont County, said he doesn't think that that has anything to do with residents not caring about the environment. He thinks it's because the locals are used to coal mining in these parts and nobody is too worried about the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area because it has been through the mining grind before.

“Most of that area was strip-mined years ago by what was called the GEM of Egypt,” he said, referring to a famous (in these parts) earth-moving machine. GEM stands for “giant earth mover” or “giant excavation machine,” and Egypt refers to the town of Egypt Valley, which is no longer around. There's talk that the land is haunted by two of its former residents: Thomas Carr, who was hanged in 1870, and Louiza Catharine Fox, a 13-year-old girl he allegedly murdered.

Cera said he would be much more troubled if mining were taking place on unspoiled earth. He said that there's an upside to mining on reclaimed land, even if it is flourishing now.

“In the old days, before the new laws that took effect during the 1970s, the land was left with highwalls and all kinds of problems,” he said. Before Ohio passed a reclamation law in 1977, when a mine in the state was closed up, virtually nothing was done to make the land suitable for wildlife.

Highwalls, which are common after surface mining, refer to 100-foot cliffs that stretch for miles and can interfere with animal migration and, being unstable, can collapse, harming people and wildlife and damming waterways. They are a prominent and strikingly attractive feature throughout Egypt Valley, helping make the land look a little like canyons in the West, in contrast to the typical sloping hills in the rest of Ohio.

‘Coal companies are usually willing to work on the reclamation. They know that it’s a feather in their cap to work on things like that.’

Michael Zaleski

Ohio Deptartment of Natural Resources

During the 1960s and 1970s, when mining in Egypt Valley was underway, not only were highwalls created, but other environmental no-nos were also routinely spread throughout the valley, like deep pits and ponds full of sulfuric acid and mounds of overburden — piles of boulders and displaced soil that can clog streams.

“So a lot of times when companies remine, they'll go in and deal with those previous problems from prelaw mining. So it can be a benefit at times, though I don't know if that will be the case in this case,” Cera said.

That may sound like hopeful spin, but Geoffrey Buckley, an environmental geography professor at Ohio University in Athens, agreed with that assessment. 

“It is certainly true that we definitely know much more about how to reclaim some of these lands than we did in the past, and certainly if there were mistakes committed, you can make some improvements. Part of that is because the bar is set pretty low. Mining companies used to do the absolute bare minimum to restore the land to its original shape,” Buckley said.

That isn't to say he thinks mining here is a swell idea. “It seems like we could be much more efficient as a society and not sacrifice these places,” he said. “But I don't really want to castigate the coal companies. Their activities are reflective of our energy consumption.”

Michael Zaleski, the public lands coordinator for the division of wildlife at the ODNR, is taking the long view and believes that after the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area is mined and restored once more, it will probably be better off for it.

“The highwalls can be dangerous. There are sometimes a 100-foot drop-off in places, and when the coal companies come back, they will mine through the highwall, and then they have to put it back within 5 percent of the original contour of the land,” he said. “Coal companies are usually willing to work on the reclamation. They know that it's a feather in their cap to work on things like that.”

The Egypt Valley Wildlife Area in eastern Ohio.
Grant Eugene Williams via Wikipedia

By the time the mining is done (the permit is for five years), Zaleski said, the ODNR will oversee — at the coal company's expense — that native trees and grass are planted, wetlands created, deep pits filled and highwalls eliminated.

He added that the hope at the ODNR is that any future state-owned lands that are mined will have been mined already, as the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area was.

The Oxford Mining Co. is reportedly in talks with the ODNR about leasing part of the Perry State Forest, about 60 miles east of Columbus, for strip-mining. Much of that forest was mined for coal in the past, but there may be more blowback there. Oxford wants to lease far more land — 1,400 acres — and the Perry State Forest is a popular place for all-terrain vehicle and dirt bike riding, which aren't exactly environmentally friendly sports.

But as with the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area, Cera does not expect to see locals protesting.

"This is secondary to fracking," he said, referring to the method drilling for natural gas. It has become prevalent in eastern Ohio, and "people are much more concerned about fracking in their backyards."

Still, Paynter remains concerned for her community. "I don't think people in this area are looking ahead, at what we're doing to the environment, not even 10 years from now," she said. "They're just looking at right now."

In the long term, that may be OK, although the bears, otters and other animal residents currently in Egypt Valley would probably disagree.

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