Mine voids debated in Virginia




RICHMOND, Va. — The original Star Trek TV series opened with the tag line, “Space … The final frontier,” and transported the series into near legendary status in the popular culture.

Space has been an interesting topic in the halls of the Virginia General Assembly this year, but not the space that Neil Armstrong conquered in 1969 when he planted an American flag on the moon. The space question this session is inner space, or more accurately, the void in the rock strata left after mineral mining companies have extracted the minerals they leased.

The whole concept of mineral rights didn’t amount to a hill of beans when the United States was a mostly agrarian society. However, that all changes in the years following the American Civil War when industrialists began searching below the surface for natural resources to fuel the foundation of an industrial revolution. Dr. Thomas Walker charted the southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia coal deposits during his 1750 exploration of the region, but it took more than a century before large scale coal mining operations became commercially viable.

During the last quarter of the 19th Century, speculators visited the region and purchased mineral rights to most of the coal lands long before the first mine shaft went underground. When the owners of big commercial mining operations started making a profit from the modest lease investments, land owners went to the state courts to determine what the coal developers could and could not do. State case law on property and mineral rights dates back to the late 1800s.

Natural resource rights can be a complex issue, and a legislator from the Far Southwest introduced a bill aimed at clarifying the control of the voids left after minerals have been extracted from a coal seam. State Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, R-Scott, introduced HB 1988, a bill designed to make the ownership rights of post-mining voids clearly the property of the coal mineral estate, unless expressly made part of the deed otherwise.

“The owner or the lessee of coal retains the right to any coal remaining in place after the removal of surrounding coal, as well as the shell, container chamber, passage, space and void opened underground that was created by the removal of the coal,” according to the summary of HB 1988. “Such void opened underground may be used by the owner or lessee for any purpose in the furtherance of removal of coal.”

The bill Kilgore introduced has, or had, the support of the Virginia Coal Association. In early February, Tommy Hudson, spokesman for the Association, gave an interview to the Virginia Mountaineer stating that passage of the bill is necessary to preserve jobs in the coal fields. Hudson was quoted as stating in the article that property owners who think the law would prevent surface land owners from seeking damages from coal operators who damage the land, said all coal mine operators are subject to regulations administered by the Department of Mines Minerals and Energy.

Hudson could not be reached last week for additional comment on the bill, and a Consol spokesperson referred an inquiry about the legislation to Hudson. Consol did, however, forward a message from the Virginia Coal Association seeking support for Kilgore’s bill to the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce. The association asked for support of the chamber’s membership to encourage State Senators William C. Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, and Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, to support the bill.

“We didn’t take a position on the matter with our membership,” Marc Meachum, president and chief executive officer of the Bluefield Chamber said. “The Coal Association asked us to forward the message to our members and we did that.”

Puckett has been consistent in his opposition to the bill. “I’m not supporting it,” he said. “They’re trying to fix the bill but I don’t know if they can. I think it’s clearly a matter of taking something without notification. I’m not a legal scholar on this issue, but I don’t know how they can use that area when there’s no mining going on there.”

In June 2010, Consol Energy Inc., paid $75 million to settle a civil suit filed in Buchanan County, Va., circuit court by Yukon Pocahontas Coal Co. The plaintiffs claimed that Consol pumped billions of gallons of contaminated water into worked out mines in western Virginia. An attorney for the plaintiffs claimed the settlement reinforced their contention that coal leases do not allow coal operators to take action that diminish the value of the lessor’s property, and Consol stated that only $25 million on the settlement was for damages while $30 million was to acquire coal interests from the plaintiff and $20 million was an advance royalty payment for coal that Consol intends to mine.

Although Kilgore’s bill cleared the house before cross over, it still needs to get through the senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources — a committee that Puckett sits on. That committee meets on Monday morning at 9 a.m.

“There’s an effort now to do one of two things,” Puckett said. “One side is trying to kill it and another side wants to pull it from consideration. That may happen this weekend.

“Right now, it’s still out there,” Puckett said. “I see it as something involving property rights.” Still, Puckett said he will keep an open mind if new language is added to the bill and it comes up before the committee.

“It’s huge to say that you can come in and take that void without sitting down to talk about it with the property owner,” Puckett said.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com


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