published Friday, April 27th, 2012

Proposed coal operation draws fire, some support

Dorothy Montgomery, foreground, checks a list of addresses that will be affected by the proposed Iron Property mines Thursday in the Rhea County Courthouse at a public hearing. "The mine will pass under my house," Montgomery said. Bruce Peterson, far left, looks at a map of the area.
Dorothy Montgomery, foreground, checks a list of addresses that will be affected by the proposed Iron Property mines Thursday in the Rhea County Courthouse at a public hearing. "The mine will pass under my house," Montgomery said. Bruce Peterson, far left, looks at a map of the area.
Photo by Tim Barber.
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DAYTON, Tenn. -- About 200 people filled the main courtroom at the Rhea County Courthouse on Thursday night to voice concerns, opposition, chastisements and support for two proposed coal mining operations on Dayton Mountain.

Ogden Road resident Dorothy Montgomery, whose home will be above one of the underground mines, said she didn't get the answers she wanted during an hourlong informal discussion period with state and federal regulatory officials and representatives from the mining company.

She's worried that the mining tunnels and underground water used by the coal operation will create voids and weaken the ground beneath her home.

And she's afraid that a parade of coal-hauling trucks -- as many as one every six minutes, she says -- will pose a danger to residents, overburden the roads and amount to too much traffic on Rhea County roads.

She said she's also afraid the proposed mines are "a done deal."

Many residents attending the hearing on permit applications had many of the same concerns, particularly about traffic and the impact on the local water supply.

Bill Winters, with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining which issues the federal permits, said Thursday's meetings were an early step in the permit review process, and a decision on whether to issue it is about 18 months away.

The meetings, one held on a National Pollutant Elimination Discharge System permit applications submitted to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the other for permits applied for through the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, are intended to allow local residents to provide input, he said.

Dave Fortner, a partner in the coal company Iron Properties, told local officials in February that the two operations could produce 300 jobs, 70 percent of them hired locally, with average annual salaries of more than $50,000 and an annual payroll of $34 million. The company would pay an estimated $12 million in local taxes.

Fortner said his group plans to begin work on two mines on Walden's Ridge near Dayton in the Ogden Road and Upper Cove Loop areas later this year, and says production could start in late 2013.

Company officials have said they hope to have the mines permitted by July.

The mines -- to be dubbed Liberty and Security -- will be between 600 and 1,000 feet deep, according to officials.

Mark Bartkoski of Integrity Development said the company is investing more than $150 million over the next year and a half.

During the public input session that followed the discussion period the first two resident-speakers took opposing sides on the proposed mines.

Resident Jack West said he'd been aware of coal prospecting in the area for about two years and was not surprised when the announcement came from Iron Properties.

West said he supported the proposed operation for Rhea County's economy.

"I know a lot of people don't agree with me, but here in Rhea County, we need jobs," he said.

But David Warner said he'd been unemployed for two-and-a-half years until a year ago and that while he understands the need for jobs, the cost to the community is too high.

"I'm not willing to sacrifice our environment for a job," Warner said. "Are we doing this for the money or are we doing this for our families?"

Other residents at the meeting said they had health concerns about coal dust they were worried would come from the coal trucks as they pass through neighborhoods on the way to the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, where officials say the product will be loaded onto barges.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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