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D.C. rally pushes for stricter environmental review of Coalfields Expressway - TriCities.com: Local News

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D.C. rally pushes for stricter environmental review of Coalfields Expressway

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Posted: Thursday, December 5, 2013 10:34 pm | Updated: 10:40 pm, Thu Dec 5, 2013.

A rally in Washington, D.C., Thursday afternoon was planned to keep pressure on federal administrators to call for a stricter environmental review of the proposed Coalfields Expressway, a local resident at the rally said.

"We've already met with the [Federal Highway Administration] but it's just to keep pressure on [them] to deny this permit, to deny this road," said Jane Branham, of Big Stone Gap. "It's a terrible idea. It's nothing but a strip mine, a gift to the coal corporations."

A group of about 75 rallied outside the Federal Highway Administration building in D.C. Thursday, and about 10 were from Southwest Virginia, participants said.

The Coalfields Expressway, U.S. 121, is a proposed highway that would link Interstates 64 and 77 in West Virginia with U.S. Highway 23 in Virginia. It is planned as a public-private partnership in which coal and energy companies use their equipment to mine the mountains and get the road to rough grade for the highway department to come in and pave it. State officials estimate that this will save more than $2 million in construction costs. Connector pieces are already under construction in places like Buchanan County.

The project has been in the works for more than a decade, but this year Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a new location for two sections of the road, according to information provided by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

This has led some to a call for another environmental study for those areas. One study has already been approved for the whole area, but opponents of mountaintop removal say another, more stringent study needs to be conducted and the Highway Administration should require the state to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement.

Some 90,000 people have signed a petition to that end, according to Appalachian Voices, one of the groups opposing the roadway.

"It's a bad idea," Branham said of the road. "We're already trying to find economic transition possibilities and this will not help the effort because this road will divert traffic away from the small towns that are already suffering."

Branham, who is vice president of Appalachia-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, said she's especially worried about the impact of surface mining on local waterways, and that the mining has made the water toxic. Rally participants took some of the water from Wise County to D.C. to make a point, she said.

Marley Green, who works with the Sierra Club, attended the rally and said he wants to make sure federal officials heard the concerns.

"We're making sure that folks who live way up here and don't know what the impacts of strip mining look like ... that they hear us loud and clear and understand the serious impact that needs to be considered before they go forward with this road," he said.

The Federal Highway Administration is currently reviewing an environmental assessment for part of the Coalfields Expressway project, according to a written statement from administration officials.

The review will determine if, among other things, proposed changes to the project warrant the supplemental statement, the highway administration statement said.

"The [Federal Highway Administration] takes its environmental stewardships responsibilities seriously, and is taking its time to provide as thorough a review as possible," the statement said.

The process is not expected to be completed until 2014.

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