Surface mining in Egypt’s thriving valley

PIEDMONT, Ohio – The Egypt Valley Wildlife Area is a tribute to what can happen once the land is cleared of its charcoal and restored to nature. The area, state-owned land in eastern Ohio, spans 18,011 acres of rolling hills, wetlands, and grasslands. There is 2,270-acre Piedmont Lake, popular with boaters and campers, and as you would expect in a wildlife preserve, there is wildlife. River otters were introduced in 1993, and black bears have made their home here, among deer and wild turkeys.

For decades this land has been opencast for coal. But in the 1990s, Ohio began buying the land, turning it into a magnet for animals, bird watchers, hikers, hunters, fishermen, and tourists.

However, much of the hard work of state and nature is now at risk, since July, when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) granted Oxford Mining Co. a license to mine coal there. . The company plans to mine for coal under 741 acres and to mine 200 acres in the open pit.

That’s not exactly the talk of the town, said Kristen Paynter, manager of Jane by Food, a Belmont restaurant specializing in Angus burgers and located several miles from an access road to Egypt. Valley Wildlife Area.

“People don’t say much. I don’t think they really realize what’s going on, or maybe they do, but they don’t tell me about it, ”she said.

She has lived in the area for about three and a half years and is not thrilled with the idea of ​​seeing surface mining equipment invading the wildlife sanctuary. But she understands why the locals don’t chain themselves to the trees and insist that the rugged terrain be left alone.

This is the land of coal, and Paynter, a mother of three and a self-proclaimed liberal with a background in social work, is the wife of a coal miner.

On the one hand, she said: “I care about the environment and I worry about what will be around my children. And on the other hand, she said, the coal industry has been good for her family. “My husband’s employer gives us great health insurance and great benefits. “

Formations like this high wall are the result of surface mining. Before Ohio passed reclamation legislation in 1977, mined lands were not restored.
Cheryl harner

Jack Cera hasn’t heard any complaints from the locals either. He is a Democratic state representative for Ohio House District 96, which includes parts of Belmont County, the county encompassing much of the Valley of Egypt, although the wildlife area does not touch all of made his district. “There is not much concern at all,” he said.

Republican State Representative Andy Thompson, who represents District 95, which includes most of the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area, was not available for an interview, his office said. Oxford Mining’s parent company Westmoreland Resource Partners in Colorado also denied Al Jazeera’s interview request.

Although he hadn’t heard any negative or positive comments from voters, Cera, who was born in Belmont County, said he didn’t think it had anything to do with the fact that the residents did not care about the environment. He thinks this is because locals are used to coal mining in these areas and no one is too worried about the Egypt Valley wildlife area as it has already been subjected to the mining.

“Most of this area was mined years ago by what was called Egypt’s GEM,” he said, referring to a famous earthmoving machine (in those areas). GEM stands for “giant earthmoving machine” or “giant excavating machine”, and Egypt refers to the city in the valley of Egypt, which is no longer there. The land is said to be haunted by two of its former residents: Thomas Carr, who was hanged in 1870, and Louiza Catharine Fox, a 13-year-old girl he allegedly murdered.

Cera said he would be much more confused if mining took place on unspoiled land. He said there is an advantage to working with reclaimed land, even though it is flourishing now.

“In the old days, before the new laws that came into effect in the 1970s, the land was left with high walls and all kinds of problems,” he said. Before Ohio passed reclamation legislation in 1977, when a state mine closed, virtually nothing was done to make the land suitable for wildlife.

High walls, which are common after surface mining, refer to 100-foot cliffs that stretch for miles and can interfere with animal migration and, being unstable, can collapse, harm to people and wildlife and obstruct waterways. They are an important and surprisingly attractive feature throughout the valley of Egypt, helping to make the land look like canyons to the west, unlike the sloping hills typical of the rest of Ohio.

“Coal companies are generally willing to work on reclamation. They know it’s a feather in their hat to work on things like this.

Michael zaleski

Ohio Department of Natural Resources

During the 1960s and 1970s, when mining in the valley of Egypt was in progress, not only were high walls created, but other environmental non-nos were also steadily spread in the valley, like deep pits and ponds filled with sulfuric acid and mounds of overburden – piles of rocks and displaced soil that can clog waterways.

“So a lot of times when companies remodel, they come in and deal with the pre-law mining issues before. So that can sometimes be an advantage, although I’m not sure if it will be in this case, ”Cera said.

It may sound promising, but Geoffrey Buckley, professor of environmental geography at Ohio University in Athens, agrees with this assessment.

“It is certainly true that we certainly know a lot more about how to get some of this land back than in the past, and certainly if mistakes were made you can make improvements. Part of the reason is that the bar is set quite low. The mining companies were doing the bare minimum to restore the land to its original form, ”Buckley said.

That’s not to say he thinks mining here is a great idea. “It looks like we could be a lot more efficient as a society and not sacrifice these places,” he said. “But I don’t really want to castigate the coal companies. Their activities reflect our energy consumption.

Michael Zaleski, the public lands coordinator for the wildlife division at ODNR, has a long-term vision and believes that once Egypt’s valley wildlife area is tapped and restored, the situation will change. will probably wear better.

“High walls can be dangerous. Sometimes there is a drop of 100 feet in places, and when the coal companies come back, they will extract through the high wall, then they will have to put it back within 5% of the original contour of the land, ”he said. he declares. . “Coal companies are generally willing to work on reclamation. They know it’s a feather in their caps to work on things like that.

The Egypt Valley Wildlife Area in eastern Ohio.
Grant Eugene Williams via Wikipedia

By the time mining is over (the permit is five years), Zaleski said, the ODNR will monitor – at the expense of the coal company – that native trees and grass are planted, wetlands created, deep pits filled and high walls eliminated.

He added that the hope of the ODNR is that all future state-owned land that is mined has already been mined, as was the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area.

The Oxford Mining Co. is said to be in talks with the ODNR about leasing a portion of Perry State Forest, about 60 miles east of Columbus, for surface mining. Much of this forest has been logged for charcoal in the past, but there may be more backfire there. Oxford wants to lease a lot more land – 1,400 acres – and Perry State Forest is a popular spot for all-terrain vehicles and off-road motorcycles, which aren’t exactly eco-friendly sports.

But like the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area, Cera doesn’t expect locals to protest.

“It’s secondary to hydraulic fracturing,” he said, referring to the method of drilling for natural gas. It has become prevalent in eastern Ohio, and “people are much more concerned about fracking in their backyard.”

Still, Paynter remains worried about her community. “I don’t think people in this region are looking to the future, what we are doing to the environment, not even 10 years from now,” she said. “They’re just watching right now.”

In the long run, this might be acceptable, although bears, otters and other animals currently residing in the valley of Egypt are unlikely to agree.

About William J. Harris

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