Black Gold; Rhea County considers return to mining coal - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Black Gold; Rhea County considers return to mining coal

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DAYTON, RHEA COUNTY (WRCB) -- Rhea County's new bid to boost its prospects could be a trip Back to the Future.

Coal was king in there more than a century ago. The Dayton Coal and Iron Company provided more than 450 jobs and mined more than 200,000 tons of coke-grade bituminous every year.

But falling prices, strikes and mining deaths closed the operation by the Great Depression.

"We're talking about mining industry coal, not energy coal," says Dave Fortner, partner in Iron Properties. "It will be sold on the international market, to China, India and South America. The market there for iron and steel is greater than ever."

Fortner's partners believe that the seams on Walden's Ridge are rich and deep enough to provide jobs for almost two generations. Iron Properties plans to invest $150 million to turn more than 300 timber-harvested acres into a mining operation that could extract 950,000 tons a year.

Iron Properties projects overall taxes of $12 million, with $950,000 in severance taxes split evenly between Rhea County Schools and the highway department.

The payroll would be at least $15 million, according to Rhea County Executive George Thacker.

"But every mining job could create seven jobs to support it; drivers, shippers, retail, etc," Thacker says. "So 300 miner's jobs could create 2,100 spinoff jobs."

Rhea County's unemployment rate topped 11.3 percent in January.

"There's good money in it," Rhea County resident Eddie Hawkins says.

He would know. Hawkins mined coal in Kentucky for more than six years. Even though a miner's job would pay at least $50,000 a year:

"Never again," he says. "It'd be a good job for people, if you can get people to go in 'em."

The chairwoman of Graysville's Planning Commission wanted to see for herself. Glenda Thurman joined Graysville's Mayor and City Recorder on a site tour Fortner conducted Thursday afternoon.

"Of immediate concern is the integrity of everybody's land here,"Thurman says. "And the impact that deep mining would have."

The operation will require permits from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

"We'll have to build a two-lane road off of Highway 443 to get onto the site," Fortner says. "We'll see about 75 truckloads of coal a day, from the Ridge base to the top, and about the same (using Highway 30) from the processing facility to the river."

Talks are well underway with the respective regulatory agencies.

"The only area we're disturbing on surface is the area where the coal mine will enter the ground and where the prep plant will be," Fortner says. "We will meet with TDOT but I believe the roads are adequate for what we're planning."

The process has opportunities for public comment. Fortner anticipates that TDEC will approve its permit by late June, clearing the way to begin building the facilities.

Iron Properties plans to contract with Chattanooga State Community and Technical College to train its miners, at the Dayton satellite campus.

If the schedule holds, the mine could begin operations late next year.

Thurman seems sold.

"From what I'm seeing as far as the clearing of all the lumber and the debris, I think it'll look better," she says.

What's even more attractive; the thought that coal could be the black gold that stops Rhea County's drain of brawn and brain.

"Keeping young people in our community, that'll foster benefits in a multitude of ways for the whole county," Thurman says. "I think this speaks for itself."

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