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NIOSH in Mace, WV: What’s all the hoopla?

Pictured above is an aerial photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mapping out the proposed location of a mine safety test facility.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Department of Health and Human Services (CDC) proposed a development site that would replace the former Lake Lynn Experimental Mine in Fayette County, Pennsylvania and would support research programs focused on miner health and safety issues. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), as a branch of the CDC, requested this upgrade for a new “mine safety training facility” much like the Lake Lynn Experimental Mine. Three potential sites across the nation were selected by a board within the CDC, one of which falls in Pocahontas county along the headwaters of the Tygart Valley River in Mace, WV. This happens to be the site selected for such development. No additional sites were added to the original three sites for consideration.

To read the summary provided as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), click the link below to be taken to the article provided by the Federal Register:

Federal Register / Vol. 86, No. 134 / Friday, July 16, 2021 / Notices

The decision by the CDC was largely kept quiet through every step of the process. Like any site of development, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be completed and approved prior to starting on any construction or potentially damaging activity per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). An EIS draft was completed on February 14, 2019, and published as a Notice of Availability.

After the release of the draft EIS, public comments were due received by September 14, 2021 . A public informative meeting was held on August 5th, 2021. To see the presentation provided by the CDC follow the link below:

The CDC was due to decide on whether to proceed with the Proposed Action on or after August 16, 2021. At that time, the CDC was to issue a Record of Decision documenting and explaining its decision based on the Final EIS. The proposed project has since received a “green light”…

To view the final EIS, follow the link below:

Pictured above is a photo from the former Lake Lynn experimental mine. This photo may give an idea of some of the potential procedures that would take place in this type of facility.

The proposed NIOSH facility is designed to be a simulated deep mine much like the modern-day deep coal mines. The facility will be an actual below-ground structure excavated into the hillside. Per the EIS, the facility will be built by excavating into the sedimentary geography, building a concrete containment, and various entrances/exits. There will also be above ground structures such as office spaces, parking, storage, and classroom locations. The design is such that there is one central entrance/exit shaft with other working shafts and horizontal runs that will simulate active mining. The EIS also names the intended use of the facility such as testing of fire suppressants (chemical and physical), exit & safety procedures, simulated mine shaft collapses, use of explosives, and use of various equipment. The Mace site itself is expected to be developed on 461.35 acres located off of U.S. Route 219. The site calls for the excavation of 362,000 tons of material for site preparation. Along with surface disruption, the site will require the removal of 152,000 tons of sedimentary rock such as limestone, sandstone, and slate. The underground area is expected to dig 500 feet below the ground. There are only expected to be 12 full-time 5 day a week employees. It is expected that there will be roughly 25 additional temporary staff that will utilize the facility only when experiments are taking place.

The specific sedimentary geology that holds potential to be damaged by the building of this facility is a special type of limestone that has been carved out by ages of ground water forming cavernous structures within the rock itself known as Karst . Karst can more specifically be defined as an area of irregular limestone in which erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns. Karst is critical when looking at watersheds because of the properties it provides to the landscape and our rivers. Karst stores and filters ground water as it moves through its caverns. Water in karst systems is generally kept very cold and is critical for the cold-water ecosystems created when the water emerges to the surface of the ground and forms or joins a stream. Limestone karst can act as a physical and chemical buffer, neutralizing acids, trapping sediment, cooling temperatures, adding key minerals and nutrients to passing water, etc. This specific karst system is critical to supplying and diverting groundwater to the headwaters of the Tygart Valley River, Elk River, and Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. There is proven connectivity between these three unique rivers. There are two other critically important streams nearby such as the East Fork of Greenbriar River and Williams River. All of these streams are home to wild trout each with numerous different tributaries home to the native brook trout. All of these streams also are a part of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Trout Stocking Program, where state and federal funding are used to raise adult trout in a hatchery setting & release these fish to create recreation and tourism. These streams are also home to many different indicator species such as hellbenders or other amphibians and reptiles. The Williams River and Greenbriar River are also home to the endangered candy darter. Granted, a major incident would have to occur, or we find movement of groundwater we didn’t previously know about, for the impacts of karst disruption to reach the Williams River or Greenbriar River. Nevertheless, what’s at stake? Mace is a popular tourist destination, as Snowshoe Resort and skiing is a mere stone’s throw away. There is also a national Scenic Highway within a few miles of the proposed site.

We have to ask the question: “At what cost?”. Mine safety is a valuable form of research, and it can positively impact the lives of many in West Virginia; however, have we fully examined ALL possible alternatives? It sure seems the area chosen by the CDC has a lot of economic, recreational, and ecological value. This makes the weight of ensuring no issues, spills, damages, violations, or accidents occur even heavier. Are we willing to risk this natural area and all of the downstream habitat to gain 12 jobs in the economy? Why was this kept so quiet?

Save The Tygart Watershed Association both appreciates and wishes safety to coal miners and their family. We simply wish to see all the necessary precautions take place prior to potentially disrupting such a unique environment. We hope all due-process is followed.

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08 mar 2023

Late comment - but that picture is of a longwall coal mining operation, not from Lake Lynn - which, like the proposed facility was a limestone mine.

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