For 14 years, residents of the Walker County community of Dovertown, near Cordova, have lived under a cloud. Coal companies have been wanting to strip-mine a nearby area along the Black Warrior River’s Locust Fork tributary.
The threat to the 200 people who live there is existential, they believe, as they’ve seen other small towns nearly fade away once the ground around them was shoveled away to get at a seam of coal.
At issue is whether the Alabama Surface Mining Commission will issue a new five-year permit to Mays Mining Inc. for the No. 5 Mine. Some of the people of Dovertown plan to speak in opposition at an informal public conference called by the commission for Wednesday, April 17.
The event will start at 6 p.m. at the Bevill State Community College Auditorium, 101 State St., Sumiton. For more information, contact Mark Woodley, 205-221-4130, Extension 213.
The commission’s attorney, Milton McCarthy, said the panel hopes to decide whether to issue a new permit by May 22, when the current permit expires. Mays has not used the expiring permit to strip-mine the site.
Besides objections by area residents, opposition has come from the Birmingham Water Works Board, which says toxic chemicals saturating part of the site would reach a major intake station five miles downriver and “adversely impact” the drinking water for some 200,000 of its customers. A “brownfield” portion of the site includes formaldehyde, phenols and other pollution left behind by a long-closed plywood factory.
The Water Works Board is fighting against the permit in a Jefferson County court. Last November, Circuit Judge Jim Hughey ruled that mining the brownfield portion of the site would be “unreasonable, unlawful, and unsupported by the clear preponderance of the evidence.” Hughey noted that the mining commission had no experience in how to mitigate a brownfield and that any a permit would have to say how Mays Mining would satisfactorily deal with the pollution.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Rodney Mays, owner of the Jasper mining company, said he had no comment on the situation.
Other challenges face the effort by Mays to get a new permit. Eva Dillard, attorney for the nonprofit environmental group Black Warrior Riverkeeper, said the Army Corps of Engineers would need to approve mining because numerous small streams cross the area and potentially could carry toxic material to the river. In addition, she said, the river is the habitat for the flattened musk turtle, which is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Dillard said an updated study of the habitat would need to be performed to ensure survival of the turtles.
Gary Hosmer, 64, who has lived in Dovertown for more than four decades, said last week that noise and dust from strip mining would drive away wildlife that helps make the area special.
The close-knit people of Dovertown have been fighting since 2005 to keep strip mining from destroying what they view as an idyllic existence since the plywood plant closed. Hosmer sees golden eagles soar overhead and honking geese fly low over the river.
Several companies have wanted to mine at Dovertown over the years, Hosmer said. He rattled off the names of successive concerns: Drummond, North American, Centennial, Reed, and now Mays have wanted to bring in big shovels and trucks. Though permits have been issued in the past to strip-mine the site, economic recession and opposition from residents, environmental groups and the Water Works Board have kept active mining at bay.
“I’ve seen what strip mines can do to a place,” Hosmer said, as he drove around the area. “There’s the noise and the dust, and you start to see a town bleed away. Carbon Hill is pretty well stripped all around, and now they’re isolated. The Empire area got just beat down. Parrish has a lot of potential, on a state highway with a supermarket, a Jack’s, a police station, but they’ve stripped up close to the intersection now, and once it’s stripped, it’ll be years before you could build on it.”
Hosmer said, “You can understand (strip mining) money-wise and short-term, but long-term, it ain’t worth a flip. It’s land nobody can use again. If you see it, it’s like a storm came through, and people start moving out.”
A neighbor, Lecil Stacks, said mining on the 8,000-foot riverfront would disrupt fishing and other time-honored traditions of rural life. “There’s a lot of run-off into the river from. It’s gotten better, but I’ve seen a time you couldn’t catch fish because of all the stuff in the river,” he said.
“Why do they want to strip a little old area?” Stacks said. “It’d blast our community out of existence, blasting rocks, tearing up houses. Dovertown’s been in limbo the last 14 years, and I worry about it day and night.”
Hosmer and others in the area say the Riverkeeper and other nonprofit organizations have supported their fight for years. Last month, the Birmingham City Council and its Citizens Advisory Board, representing all 99 neighborhood associations, passed resolutions opposing the strip mine.
The city of Cordova, a mile or so away, has a financial interest in the mine. Its Economic and Industrial Development Board stands to get 8 percent of royalties from the mine’s activity. Last summer, a public outcry ensued after that board endorsed Mays Mining’s effort to renew the permit. The heat got so intense that all but one member resigned, and new ones opposed to the permit were appointed by the town’s City Council.
Jim Madison was the only member of the old board who was retained, and he vehemently opposes the mining proposal. A Cordova resident, Madison put it bluntly: “A strip mine there would be an environmental disaster. There shouldn’t be any mining on the river – it’s our most valuable resource, and it’s not smart to tamper with it.”
And, he said, stripping the coal from the site “would devastate Dovertown. It’s close-knit, lovely, and it has a sense of place that you don’t find much anymore.”
The community’s residents “have been tormented by this issue for years,” Madison continued. “Gary (Hosmer) is a warrior; he’s out front. I’m sure these people are tired, and their numbers are dwindling (with age), but boy, they’re fighters, and I’m with them all the way, one hundred percent.”
But Madison is aware of the power of the historic coal culture, what he called the Walker County syndrome where coal is king – “They’d put a toxic waste dump in Cordova and say it’s great, because you get some good-paying jobs.”
Hosmer pointed out signs that community members had erected opposing the mine permit. He’s been a prime organizer of frequent strategy meetings of Dovertown residents, nearly all, he said, opposed to the mining operations.
Hosmer and neighbors continue to hope the No. 5 mine will never be active, and that Dovertown can continue its peaceful existence. If not, and the permit eventually is issued, he said some people will move out. That won’t include him and his wife Gaytha, he said, as the forest hummed with the sounds of nature and hummingbirds frolicked at a feeder near their porch.
“We’ve been here about all our lives…and I’m not going away.”