Community group renews call for city to ban use of mountaintop coal by GRU


This Jan. 26, 2012 file photo shows GRU's coal pile at the Deerhaven Generating Station.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, May 24, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.

A community group has renewed its call for the city of Gainesville to officially end Gainesville Regional Utilities’ use of coal mined through blasting and shearing off mountaintops.

The push for a ban on the purchase of mountaintop coal comes as GRU officials say cost and environmental factors have the utility currently not buying any coal mined through the controversial process.

The community group behind the push for a ban, Gainesville Loves Mountains, formed back in 2011 to press the City Commission to adopt an ordinance formally declaring GRU would not use mountaintop coal.

Since then, the commission’s Regional Utilities Committee has intermittently discussed the issue for 18 months, but it has not reached the full City Commission.

In a renewed effort to push things ahead, Gainesville Loves Mountains recently submitted its own draft version of the ordinance it would like the commission to adopt. The group then launched a petition drive in favor of the ordinance on Change.org, and supporters have flooded city commissioners with several dozen emails.

“Our argument is, if we’re diversifying our fuel supply and we have an award-winning conservation program, we should be able to get away from the worst of the worst in terms of energy supply,” said Gainesville Loves Mountains founder Jason Fults, a Gainesville resident who attended college near Kentucky coal country.

City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said he thinks the commission should adopt a formal policy.

“We actually have stopped doing it; the question is do we want to make it a permanent, decisive decision,” he said. “It’s a bad environmental practice. It’s a bad social practice. If we want to be a community that respects other communities’ natural resources, their quality of life and the sanctity of their environment, we shouldn’t continue to use mountaintop coal.”

In the mountaintop mining process, trees and underbrush are clear cut and explosives are used to blast off mountaintops and access the coal seams beneath. The waste generated is disposed of in valleys and buries or impacts streams.

The practice is most common in the Central Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and western Virginia, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. By the EPA’s estimate, mountaintop mining has buried about 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams.

Facing lawsuits, increased regulations under the Obama administration and backlash from resident and environmental groups, some coal companies have moved to abandon mountaintop mining as the industry goes through mine closings and sheds thousands of jobs.

St. Louis-based Patriot Coal, which is in bankruptcy, agreed to phase out mountaintop removal last fall to settle a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, according to the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

Thomas Foxx, the fuels manager for GRU, said the utility never used a significant amount of mountaintop coal and, at this point in time, has no long-term contracts in place to purchase any coal. The decline in natural gas prices has GRU relying more on that fuel and has left the utility with a surplus supply of coal. In response, GRU let three contracts to purchase coal expire earlier in the year.

Foxx said two of those three contracts were exclusively purchases of high-quality coal from mines deep underground. Right now, economic and environmental factors have GRU moving away from Central Appalachia and toward coal from the Illinois Basin.

It is a lower-quality, lower-cost coal that can be mixed with better grade coal and, after an upgrade completed in 2009, burned in the Deerhaven 2 plant.

“We will have a presence in Central Appalachia in the future but it won’t be anything like what we had in the past,” Foxx said. “And it will most likely be concentrated in high quality mines that are located in the ground.”

City Commissioner Lauren Poe, who spent the past year as chair of the Regional Utilities Committee, said the issue dates back to before Gainesville Loves Mountains.

Poe said he raised the issue early during his first stint on the commission, which began in 2008.

While GRU has weaned itself off mountaintop coal, Poe said he supports a formal policy.

“It’s an environmentally destructive process that Gainesville and GRU should not be tied to in any way.”

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