The view from Kentucky’s highest point has a ‘sore thumb.’ A new deal could be the fix
There is an overlook on the road that passes the highest point in Kentucky, on Black Mountain in Harlan County, where the view stretches for miles.
For years, as residents and organizations worked to develop tourism in hopes of creating jobs, there was a large surface coal mine smack in the middle of the landscape that hadn’t been properly reclaimed.
The bare dirt and rock covering hundreds of acres was particularly noticeable when forests on the surrounding hills were leafy green in the spring and summer, or awash in color in the fall. But even this time of year, the sheer walls (called highwalls) and treeless, eroded slopes stand out.
“You look over there and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, is that a nuclear test site?’“ said Paul Browning III, a Harlan County magistrate whose district includes Black Mountain. “It looks like a bomb went off.”
That’s supposed to change soon, however.
Three citizens’ groups recently reached an agreement with the mine operator to fully reclaim the site by this fall.
Reclamation typically involves using heavy equipment to eliminate highwalls and sowing vegetation to control erosion.
The mine is in Wise County, Va., which borders Harlan County. It was mined by A&G Coal Corporation, a family company of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, according to a lawsuit.
A&G received a permit for the mine in 2004 and last removed coal from the site in April 2013, the lawsuit said.
Coal companies are supposed to do contemporaneous reclamation on surface mines, meaning to reclaim areas as soon as practical after mining.
That didn’t happen at the mine visible from Black Mountain, called the Looney Ridge mine, according to a lawsuit by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS), Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club.
The lawsuit said that as of July 2022, the surface disturbance at the mine covered nearly 600 acres and less than half had been reclaimed.
Virginia regulators cited the mine for environmental violations, but kept extending deadlines to fix the problems, the complaint said.
“There was just never any teeth to what the state did,” said Peter Morgan, a senior attorney for the Sierra Club who worked on the case.
A&G said in a court document that the company has done more work at the sites than state records reflect, but acknowledged nearly 2,500 acres at the three sites remain to be reclaimed and revegetated.
The three citizens’ groups sued A&G in mid-January, saying members were upset and offended by the “barren, unreclaimed” mines at Looney Ridge and two other sites in Wise County and concerned about the risk of erosion, landslides and polluted runoff into streams.
“These mines have long been priorities for local residents” to get cleaned up, Morgan said.
A&G agreed to a settlement in the complaint by the citizens’ groups. The deal sets deadlines for the company to fully reclaim all three mines; outlines financial penalties for not sticking to the deal; requires A&G to fund an escrow account to cover reclamation costs; and requires the company to pay attorney fees for the three groups.
A federal judge approved the agreement last week.
The Looney Ridge site was such a visible example of the massive disturbance involved in surface mining, and of the lack of proper reclamation in some cases, that groups concerned about surface mining in Appalachia took people up Black Mountain to see it.
Rea Wynder went on a tour of southeast Virginia in October 2022 with the Faith & Money Network, based in Washington, D.C. Members of SAMS took the group to see the Looney Ridge mine, Wydner said.
Wynder, who worked in conflict resolution much of her career, said there was a stark contrast between the mined area and the surrounding hills.
“In shock,” Wynder said of her reaction. “Definitely you think of damage.”
The mine remained highly visible as tourism became a more significant part of the economy of the area, which has suffered from deep layoffs in the coal industry.
There are several attractions in the towns of Cumberland, Benham and Lynch, at the base of Black Mountain, where the highest point reaches 4,145 feet above sea level.
Those include the Kentucky Coal Museum and the Benham Schoolhouse Inn in Benham, a historic former coal-company town; the Portal 31 underground mine tour in Lynch, another historic coal town more than a century old; and Kingdom Come State Park in Cumberland, the highest-elevation state park in Kentucky.
Black Mountain figures significantly in the efforts to boost tourism.
There is a project in the works to build a 40-foot-high observation tower atop the mountain that will provide a panoramic view of mountains stretching into several states.
“It’s a great view,” said Steve Gardner, lead engineer on the project.
The tower is part of a larger plan to improve the underground mine tour in Lynch and renovate a sandstone bath house where miners cleaned up after their shifts beginning more than a century ago.
KY 160, the road over Black Mountain from Cumberland, Benham and Lynch into Virginia, was the first route included in efforts by a group called Backroads of Appalachia to promote visitation by motorcycle riders and other motorsports enthusiasts.
The 22-mile drive, dubbed the Dragon Slayer 160, has more than 240 curves, said Erik Hubbard, founder of Backroads of Appalachia.
The unreclaimed A&G mine was obviously visible to visitors pulling off at the overlook just past the state line, a popular spot for photos.
“It’s a sore thumb, but at the same time it’s a conversation piece,” Hubbard said of the mine.
Events coordinated by the organization, which has a welcome center in Lynch, brought in thousands of visitors last year. The economic impact associated with events Backroads of Appalachia sponsored in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee was between $9.2 million to $13.7 million, according to a study.
As people work to keep building on that momentum, the deal to reclaim the Looney Ridge mine is welcome news, Browning said.
“Any forward progress trying to reclaim, bring that back to what it was, is good progress,” Browning said. “Tourism is the shortest bridge as an economic driver for this area.”