Virginia’s Coalfields Expressway

The Coalfields Expressway was stymied by a shortage of funding, so VDOT entered into a public-private partnership with two coal companies that proposed an alternate route for the highway.


Photo © Robert Llewellyn

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Mountaintop Removal Masquerading as a Highway Project

Under the shield of Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act, coal companies have partnered with the state’s Department of Transportation to fast-track approval of mountaintop removal coal mining disguised as a highway project, known as the Coalfields Expressway. The proposed highway would offer minimal transportation benefit despite its exorbitant cost to taxpayers and the substantial environmental damage it would cause.

Clearing the Way for Mountaintop Mining  

Originally proposed in the 1990s, the Coalfields Expressway was stymied by a shortage of funding, so VDOT entered into a public-private partnership with coal companies that proposed an alternate route for the highway. VDOT would acquire title to lands needed for rights-of-way and provide partial funding for design and construction. The coal companies would then blast away mountaintops to extract coal along the route, clearing the way for VDOT to complete the new highway.  What’s more, with the state’s power of eminent domain behind them, VDOT’s for-profit partners would be able to mine land that might otherwise be inaccessible to them. 

Ensuring Environmental Impacts are Studied

SELC and its partners have strong objections to this plan.  For major parts of the proposed route, VDOT has tried to use the new “coal synergy” concept to sidestep essential aspects of environmental review required by law.  In 2012, VDOT issued an assessment of the impacts of the largest section of the highway (“Section II”), but it completely failed to acknowledge the devastating environmental and public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. The assessment relied on decade-old surveys and incomplete information regarding the road's potential effects on wildlife, streams, wetlands, and forests. 

SELC insisted that VDOT prepare a thorough, up-to-date analysis that objectively looks at impacts to the environment and communities along the corridor, as the review process requires.   Three federal agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—also called for VDOT to prepare a full supplemental environmental impact statement in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  In 2014, FHWA announced that it would require VDOT to conduct this new study, and SELC and its coalition partners continue our efforts to ensure that decision-makers include in the analysis a full range of highway alternatives that truly serve the communities of southwest Virginia and do not depend on mountaintop removal coal mining. 

Protecting Mountain Streams

Recent design changes to another piece of the coal synergy project (the “Section IIIB Corridor Q Overlap”) could also significantly increase environmental and community impacts.  VDOT’s previous design for this section included a bridge over Poplar Creek near Grundy to avoid impacts on this mountain stream.  Due to a lack of funds, VDOT now proposes to break up this section into phases, and to put a sizeable segment of Poplar Creek into box culvert to enable this phasing to occur.  In addition to its severe impacts on aquatic resources, the much greater footprint of the proposed culvert would displace many more homes and a large family cemetery.  SELC is urging VDOT to further study the impacts of this new proposal and other options, and the Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency have done so as well. 

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