Tri-County Coal


            Perhaps the smallest of the nine, this mine stretches along the ridges of the mountains that hug the northeast side of County Route 3 through Dingess. Two local men bought this permit from Pen Coal a couple of years ago and are operating a contour mine without any valley fills.

            Blasting problems have been associated with the large, mountaintop removal jobs where blasts can be 50,000 pounds to 250,000 pounds and even as much as 1 million pounds. Tri-County refutes that theory and shows the complexities of blasting. The largest blast we recorded was 43,942 pounds, with nearly half less than 10,000 pounds.

            Stanley Marcum, a disabled miner in his 50s, lives where he was born, in a two-story house on the banks of the West Fork of Twelvepole Creek. Steel blue, the house has been carefully restored. Birds gather at the feeders near the creek bank, and Marcum built a garage a few years ago. His wife has a beauty parlor in the rear of the house and is home most of the day.

            When Pen Coal was blasting about half a mile down the road three years ago, Marcum did complain to DEP a few times even though his home wasn’t among the closest. Last year and this past winter, his house was frequently just about the closest to Tri-County. Blasting was occurring on the ridges lying to the northeast, across the creek and road from his house. Only now, he was reluctant to complain because he had gone to school with one of the owners.

            Still, his wife kept careful track of the blasts, noting down the ones that were the most bothersome. Marcum believes the cracks in the foundation have grown worse because of the blasting. He showed me how the bottom wall of his living room bows outward into the room. Whether these irregularities were caused by blasting will be up to an engineer. What is clear, though, is that the blasting is annoying and sometimes scary. The house just shakes and shakes, according to Marcum and his son.

            The Marcum family has been working in the mines for decades. Stanley worked as a deep miner at Marrowbone for more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, Marrowbone ousted the UMWA, but Marcum stayed on. He had the misfortune to be in a mine fall, breaking his back in several places. Though he is fortunate to be able to walk, he can’t go back to work. The mine paid the medical bills for his accident, but he is now like many disabled miners in their 50s and early 60s: without medical coverage until he reaches retirement age. Marcum’s son drove a coal truck at Pen Coal, but recently switched to driving for Marrowbone.

            A new permit for Marrowbone’s mountaintop mine is approaching Marcum’s house from the southwest. The pond for the valley fill will be about 300 feet from his backyard. "I was born here,” he said. “But if they bought me out, I would leave.”

            The Marcums aren’t the only ones who were bothered by the blasts, either. Roger Meade and his wife live across the street. Dishes in their house have been knocked off shelves and broken.



            The most obvious reason for these blasting problems would be because the blasting was very close to the homes.

            Of the 130 blasts we entered in the database, Mrs. Marcum noted 27 were especially bothersome. These blasts were either closer, deeper, had a larger number of holes, a larger amount of powder per delay or shorter delays.

            12 of those were 1000 feet from the closest house. There were another nine blasts that were also within 1000 feet. But the ones that caused problems had significant differences with all but one of the less offensive blasts. Two were nearly twice as deep 59 and 68 feet, compared to 30 feet). Seven had more holes. Seven had fewer delays (17ms and 42ms, compared to 17ms, 42ms and 109ms).

            The other 15 troublesome blasts were located in just 10 other grids. (Blasting was done in 26 different grids). In four of those grids, nearly every blast was bothersome.

            In the other grids, the bothersome blasts differed in significant ways. The most obvious were the delay timing and delay designs.

            The amount shot per delay ranged from two at 1,394 pounds to one at 10 pounds. There were a number of blasts between 255 pounds and 782 pounds. Interestingly, of the 10 blasts at 697 pounds, only three were bothersome. All three were in the two of the 10 grids closer to the Marcums.

            It would seem that blasting at this mine would have benefited from closer attention from DEP. Numerous blasts were listed on the log as 1,000 feet from the closest protected structure. However, the name of the owner was never given as it is at most other mines. It is quite possible that some of the blasts were actually within 1,000 feet of homes and would have required site-specific blasting plans.

            There were no complaints up to March 2000. A few complaints were filed after that. But because there had been no previous complaints, it appears that DEP did not pay close attention to the blasting.

            This is the one mine where management seemed to genuinely want to try to lessen the impacts of the blasting. In fact, the mine manager asked me to tell him if I found any reason why the people were having problems with the blasts.

            After the mine received complaints from people soon after starting up early in 1999, the powder company studied the vibration patterns and recommended altering the frequencies. It appears that the delays were lengthened on many, but not all, of the blasts. Unlike other mines, the blasting logs sometimes seemed as if they were carbon copies. As we were inputting, we sometimes felt like the blast from the previous day had just been copied onto that day’s log. Perhaps, they did shoot nearly identical blasts on consecutive days, but it seemed odd.

            Bill Dye, the mine manager, said the complaints in April-June of this year resulted from an unusual rock formation. The blasters unexpectedly encountered fractures as large as 6 inches in the rock. They had to increase the powder in order to try to break up the rocks, some as large as houses. But the fractures and increased amount of powder made for larger air blasts, he explained. There was no way, that he knew, to discover the fractures before shooting. He said they tried to tell residents what was happening.

            I asked him whether the mine could afford to shoot less per delay. He said that they tried to break the shots up into two or three smaller groups when they are close to houses. However, he said, that it would probably cost too much in time delays to do that with larger shots further away from the community. They do try to do preline, breakup and production shots, and have minimized the shots as much as possible.

            He said that community residents are understanding if they are called ahead of time. However, it would be difficult, he said, for a mine or DEP to survey a community to discover the full extent of the problems.

Continue to in-depth analyses of blasting problems in nine communities: