By Pam Sohn and Tom Davis
DAYTON, Tenn. - A deep-mining operation with 300 projected jobs and an annual payroll of $34 million is being planned for Walden's Ridge near Dayton - the first deep mining on the ridge in about 80 years.
If permitted by state and federal officials, the mining operation will serve a new world market, according to Dave Fortner, partner in Iron Properties, which will operate the mine and processing operation.
"The world demand for coal is greater now," and that has made deep coal mining attractive here again, Fortner said Wednesday.
"The Indian, Chinese and South American people are improving their standard of living and they need coal to make steel there. They do have coal [in their countries], but the coal that is needed is more available in our country," he said.
Fortner said the coal to be mined locally is the kind burned to make coke ore. The coke -- which burns hotter than coal -- is used in steel foundries.
Fortner and Mark Bartkoski, owner of Integrity Development Consultants, told Rhea County commissioners Tuesday they hope to receive permits by June or July and begin production in the fourth quarter of 2013.
Mines would be located on Ogden Road atop Walden's Ridge, and at the foot of the ridge off Upper Cove Loop.
Fortner told commissioners the company plans to hire 70 percent of the workforce locally, and miners will earn an average of more than $50,000 per year.
He estimated the company would pay $12 million in taxes per year, including about $950,000 in mineral severance taxes to the county. Over the next three years, he projected an investment of some $153 million.
Bartkoski said the operation would include a coal processing plant and a barge-loading facility.
County Executive George Thacker told commissioners the project is "real."
"This is real. This is coming. It's going to change our community. I think we need to help them," he said.
But Commissioner Tracy Taylor, who represents the Walden's Ridge area, said his constituents are concerned about traffic and work hours.
Bartkoski told the commission he has been working with state and local highway officials to address road concerns. He said he would expect 75 truckloads a day to carry coal from the base of the ridge to the top, and 72 loads from the processing facility to the river.
"We generally set up trucking during daylight hours. And we have always cooperated well with school systems about bus routes," he said.
David Hardeman, a member of SOCM, an environmental group that got its start fighting coal strip mines, said he and some members of the organization have met with Fortner to learn more about the proposed deep mining operation.
"I told him I was concerned about subsidence [sinkholes.] Normally coal companies prop up the mined sections with steel poles that they take out when the operation's done there. But that often causes roads to break and other problems."
Hardeman said Fortner assured him that won't be done in Rhea County.
"He said they leave posts of coal for support and they will leave them there," Hardeman said.
Former SOCM president Landon Medley said he also is worried about potential water pollution.
"Historically all the surface coal mining in this region has created acid runoff problems in groundwater and surface water," he said. "Walden's Ridge is known for [legacy] acid mine drainage."
But both said SOCM will take a wait-and-see approach for now.
"We've expressed our concern, but it's really up to the people in the communities if they want to oppose this. If they do, we'll help them," Medley said.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has been reviewing the mine permit application for about a year. The process is linked with similar applications to the federal Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Before permits are issued, a public hearing will be scheduled and comments will be collected.
At Tuesday's Rhea County Commission meeting, Beth Jones, executive director of the Southeast Tennessee Development District, encouraged county leaders to think about their economy.
"This is where you are different from all the communities around you. You have a resource in your ridge that there is a global market for. You don't have to spend millions of dollars to develop an industrial site. This may be the opportunity we hoped for, to help you build your new schools and other things," she said.
Unemployment in Rhea County is 11.3 percent.
And just last week, Thacker pleaded with the Tennessee Valley Authority board to grant Rhea and Meigs counties a moratorium against higher TVA shore fees in hopes of allowing riverside campgrounds, marinas and restaurants a chance to bounce back. Of 20 such businesses that had existed in Rhea County in recent years, only four remain open now.
Fortner said because Iron Properties' mining methods are "very noninvasive," he doesn't expect any opposition.
He said Iron Properties plans to invest "several hundred million dollars" into the operation and already has purchased both land and mineral rights. The company began prospect drilling in the long-known coal seam in 2010.
A proposed second phase, targeted for 2016 to 2020, would add four similar complexes to the north of the Walden's Ridge site.
Contact correspondent Tom Davis, based in Dayton, at email@example.com.