Feds order full review of Coalfields Expressway

Stephen Igo • Jun 28, 2014 at 11:53 PM

RICHMOND — The Federal Highway Administration is requiring the Virginia Department of Transportation to conduct a full environmental impact study for a 26-mile section of the Coalfields Expressway.

The CFX four-lane project of roughly 50 miles would traverse Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise Counties in Virginia, linking up with U.S. Route 23 near Pound in Wise County. Much of the CFX has been completed in West Virginia, linking up with I-77/West Virginia Turnpike near Beckley.

Virginia's portion of the project is configured on a public-private partnership deal with coal companies to allow the companies to mine coal while creating road beds. VDOT figures the partnership will cut the cost of the CFX by almost half in Virginia from a projected $5.1 billion to $2.8 billion.

Only two miles of the CFX has been built in Virginia, in Buchanan County. In its most recent ruling on the project in late May, the FHWA said because VDOT fundamentally changed the route and nature of a 26 mile section to accommodate coal mining interests, the state agency must prepare a comprehensive analysis of environmental and community impacts, and consider alternatives.

The impact assessment may take 18 months to complete. Critics were happy with FHWA's decision. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, federal Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also urged FHWA and VDOT to prepare a comprehensive analysis.

"This decision is good news for the people of Southwest Virginia," said Jane Branham, vice president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. "We are pleased that FHWA and VDOT will take a hard look at the irresponsible and destructive mining practices that have already hurt our communities that would be part of this ill-conceived strip mine/highway proposal."

Marley Green, a Wise County resident and Sierra Club organizer, said the study will give VDOT "the opportunity to take a fresh, honest look at this project. We have the chance to figure out the best ways to improve transportation access and diversify our struggling mountain economy."

Kate Rooth, campaign director with Appalachian Voices, said it's good the state "will be required to examine this road fully before spending our tax dollars on a deal that only helps the coal companies rather than the community. Now, local business owners, landowners and citizens whose clean drinking water would be impacted can help VDOT design a project to truly benefit Central Appalachia."

Proponents of the public-private partnership cite the considerable cost savings on a highway construction project that one way or another will carve its way through rugged terrain, much of it containing coal deposits. Portions would also offer opportunities to remediate prior mining practices.

Residents and business owners of some towns, including Pound, have complained the CFX would merely bypass their municipalities.

There are about two dozen access points plotted on current route plans for the CFX in Virginia. Deborah Murray, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said decision makers "must keep in mind the original purpose and need of the project — serving the local communities."

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