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Virginia Energy Leveraging Federal Funding to Diversify Southwest Region's Economic Profile



July 3, 2024 - Many miners in Virginia’s coalfield region may have avoided going underground and remained topside of the earth to procure coal through surface mining, but they were exposed to health issues that underground miners also face, including black lung, injuries or crippling addiction to pain pills heavily marketed to them after getting hurt.

Providing solutions for people enduring years of addiction has become one aspect of an economic development project in Dickenson County, and part of state efforts fueled by federal funds to clean up and transform areas of Virginia left damaged from decades of coal mining operations. The Dickenson County project plans to train people graduating from a treatment center for new employment opportunities and may help set up the area’s future for success.

“You may not correct this generation, but by breaking the cycle, the next generation can pick up the ball and run,” said Brent Hughes, innovative reclamation supervisor at Virginia Energy, during an interview. “That’s what they’re trying to build here.”

Along with the unprecedented funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to clean up environmental problems with abandoned mine lands, thousands of areas that weren’t returned to their natural state by coal companies prior to 1977 federal regulations, Virginia Energy is receiving money for new opportunities to diversify the economic profile of Southwest Virginia.

Congress has given the state agency over $10 million a year since 2017 for the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization, or AMELR, program that is leaning in on regional cooperation, local officials say. 



 A screenshot of Abandoned Mine Line Economic Revitalization projects in Virginia. (Courtesy of Virginia Energy) 


But the dollars flowing through the region could also help create a big business that leaves after a few years, some residents fear. 

“I think people remain optimistically cautious,” said Brandi Hurley, a criminal defense attorney living in Russell County. ”People see these jobs popping up, they’ve seen enough go in and go out to know there’s a very good chance that this is not going to be a long-term opportunity.”

AMLER Projects 

Some AMLER projects may be in remote areas, or in more prominent ones, such as Project Intersection up on a plateau at the intersection of U.S. 23 and U.S. 58 near the city of Norton in Wise County.

It took about 15 years of negotiating and a $12 million grant for the site to prepare to host EarthLink, a call center that will provide broadband services around the world. 

About 280 people will be employed at the building featuring conference rooms, lockers, a break room and tall windows showcasing the mountainous viewshed of the region.

“For economic development, [perpetuity] is not a reality; very few things are going to be here forever,” said Fred Ramey, Norton’s city manager. “But this [building] is an asset that will be here forever. it will continue to serve in perpetuity.” 



Pam Price, talent acquisition manager at EarthLink, shows off her company’s new building in June 2024. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury)

Further north in the region is the $3.8 million Red Onion revitalization project in Dickenson County, which has received about $870,000 in AMLER grant funding with additional funding coming from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and Coalfield Economic Development Authority. The location is where the training facility for workers is expected to go, on an area that was mined in the 1970s and then re-mined in the early 2000s, after regulations — requiring the mining company to leave the disturbed area flat and able be built on — were activated. 



Brent Hughes, innovative reclamation supervisor at Virginia Energy, left, looks over plans for a rehabilitation facility in Dickenson County with Larry Barton, county administrator for Dickenson County.


The project will be near a separate site that will be home to the rehabilitation facility Hughes talked about.

“We’ve got a big chunk missing out of our workforce,” said Larry Barton, county administrator for Dickenson County, adding that just 4,000 of the 14,000 people living there are employed. “What’s missing is that male age, 18 to 35, and those numbers pretty well mirror that male 18 to 35 in addiction. If we can leverage the workforce that we can rehabilitate and train, then we’re hoping we can locate people to this industrial park.” 

Regional, Community Input   

The local officials  tout their regional effort to draw in businesses, like coordinating the funding through the planning district that serves Lee, Wise and Scott Counties and the City of Norton, dubbed LENOWISCO. 

The Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority, or LPRIFA, was created through legislation in 2019, which includes representatives from the counties of Dickenson, Lee, Scott, and Wise and the City of Norton. The LPRIFA has agreements with its jurisdictional members to share revenue from economic development projects.

“All of our localities have their own economic development, but we have seen more economic recruitment success and economic growth as a region bar none compared to what we were as individuals,” said Duane Miller, executive director with the LENOWISCO planning district. 



 An area for water from an abandoned mine land site in Grundy to drain. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury) 

Some community members would like to voice concerns to the state over wetlands that were created within the abandoned mine lands. Walter H. Smith, Ph.D, chair of the Department of Natural Sciences at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, and a member of the local environmental advocacy group The Clinch Coalition, has researched the topic.

“The vast majority of those wetlands no longer fall under regulatory jurisdiction, so they would likely not be accounted for during [National Environmental Policy Act] reviews and receive no special protection from development during AML reuse projects, despite their important ecological and flood control functions,” Smith said. 

Hurley, who’s originally from Buchanan County and from a family of coal miners, said that in addition to her desire to see the region’s forthcoming jobs stick around, she’d like to have some of the economic funding go toward training residents on how to run a business, or supporting tradesmen that will give back directly to the community. 

“I know a guy that makes banjos out of hollowed birdhouses; that’s a really cool skill set,” said Hurley. “Why not give that guy 200k, [and] open up a banjo manufacturing thing, something that people in this area already know how to do?” 


 The project Red Onion site in Dickenson County. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury) 

In response to those concerns, Tarah Kesterson, a spokeswoman for the agency, noted that AMLER projects have engineering plans that are professionally designed and certified “to ensure the plans are followed properly and no erosion issues occur.” Anyone with feedback, concerns or ideas can contact the agency by phone, email and regular mail, too, she said.