King Coal Highway, school site coming along
Williamson Daily News
Wednesday, September 26, 2007 3:32 PM CDT
RED JACKET - Six to eight miles of the Mingo County section of the King Coal Highway is now rough grade and on Tuesday area citizens, along with local, state and federal officials and representatives of the Virginia Department of Transportation were able to travel this portion of highway.
Because of the uniqueness of the private/public partnership of bringing the roadway into existence, this project is receiving national attention and media coverage. Once completed, the 11.2 mile stretch of highway will come at a cost savings of approximately $170 million to county taxpayers.
Local and state school board officials were also able to see up close the 75-acre section which is being donated for the proposed consolidated high school.
Mike Castle told the school board officials that the entire cost for site preparation for the 75 acres was being absorbed by Alpha Natural Resources.
“The school site is 85 percent completed as far as materials being moved,” Castle said.
Before the invitation-only tour began, guests were given a brief history on how construction of the roadway came into being. The tour was touted as the King Coal Highway success story.
Mike Whitt, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, explained that after the Mingo County Land Use Master Plan was developed in and around existing proposed four-lane highways, he realized that Premium Energy, which was owned by Don Nicewonder at the time, was mining in the Twisted Gun Gap area. This area was designated as a site for the King Coal Highway.
Whitt said he went to Nicewonder and asked if, while mining the area, he could leave a rough grade for the road which would save the county millions of dollars.
“Mr. Nicewonder told me that the equipment does not have a brain, it will do exactly what we tell it to do,” Whitt told the Daily News. “He said if I could get all the red tape taken care of, he would leave a road bed and development sites wherever I wanted but he didn't have the time to work through the red tape to do that.”
Whitt said he then met with all the state and federal highway offi
cials and after that, a meeting was set up with representatives of the regulatory state and federal agencies.
“Each group said they thought it made sense and after about a year of meetings to get everyone on the same page, we met in Charleston with DOH Secretary Fred VanKirk where everyone agreed to do their part to make this project happen.”
At the time, Whitt said Paul Maddox was employed with E.L. Robinson Engineering who helped draft the Land Use Master Plan. Maddox now serves as DOH secretary.
An overview of the project which started in October 2004 was given by Greg Blankenship.
He said three years into the venture Alpha Natural Resources, which is headquartered in Abingdon, Va., has moved approximately 34 million of the 60 million cubic yards of dirt to make way for the highway.
“This is no longer the proposed King Coal Highway - part of it is here today,” Blankenship said. “Once the road bed is completed, it will be donated to the state highway department.”
Maddox, in expressing his pride in being a part of the success story,. commended Whitt and Nicewonder, former owner of Nicewonder Construction Inc., for their vision of putting the highway plan together.
“Theirs was an innovative way of making the highway a reality and I'm anxiously waiting to see the progress being made,” Maddox told those in attendance.
Tom Smith of the federal highway Administration described Mingo County as one of his favorite places to visit.
“This partnership venture gets great press outside of West Virginia,” Smith said.
“It has the three Ps which I believe are needed: partnership, potential that it brings to southern West Virginia and perseverance of staying on details and continuing to work the details.”
The federal highway administration views the benefits and approach being used to cut cost, Smith continued.
“This includes the schedule and development of land for local use, the environmental benefit and ways of making highway construction work with mining coal,” Smith said.
“This project is recognized nationally, the permitting process is unique, the field construction has saved money.
“This is one of the greatest projects I have worked on in my career.”
Department of Environmental representative Randy Hoffman spoke of the regulatory changes which have evolved because of this project.
“Environmental regulators are evolving into being open-minded and creatively thinking,” Smith said.
“The Corps of Engineers has been able to put together road projects with the mining industry and coal companies have chosen to give back to their communities because this is the right thing to do.
“This road would not have been built except through this measure and I want to drive across it before I die.”
Although Don Nicewonder was credited with being a key player in the venture, he told the crowd that he may have had the vision but his sons, Kenny and Kevin, along with many others helped to carry it out.
The smooth transition to keep everything going after Nicewonder sold his company to Alpha Natural Resources was also praised.
During the driving tour, Mike Castle answered the many questions asked by those who traveled the highway.
Officials of the Virginia Department of Transportation said they hope to accomplish something similar to this in their state, involving the Coalfield Expressway.
The entire 11.2 mile section is expected to be ready to turn over to the state DOH by 2012.