The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) held an open house public meeting last Wednesday at Linwood Library to share information about the proposed land acquisition and development of an underground research facility in Mace. Residents had a opportunity to learn more about the proposal as well as to ask questions and voice concerns to representatives from the CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Last Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) held an open house-style public meeting at Linwood Library to share a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed acquisition of a 461-acre site for the development of an underground safety research facility in Mace.

During the meeting, CDC and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) officials were available to answer questions and address concerns from those who live in Pocahontas and Randolph counties.

The proposed facility will act as a replacement for the NIOSH research facility at the former Lake Lynn Experimental Mine in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

Sam Tarr, of the CDC, explained that the site in Pennsylvania was vacated due to an inability to reach a lease agreement with the land-owner.

“We made several purchase offers, and they were rejected by the owner, so at that point – we needed to continue the research that was being done there – so we went out and said we need to find a new location where we can establish that research portfolio.”

The CDC worked with the GSA to draft a proposal for land acquisition.

“We worked with our partners at GSA and sent a request for expression of interest, which all that really is is an invitation to the public – if you have property that you would like us to consider for purchase, please let us know about it,” Tarr said. “We started out within 200 miles of Pittsburgh and received no response, so we opened it up to the forty-eight contiguous United States, and this was one of the responses that came in from the owner of this property.”

After receiving interest from the Mace property owners – The Consortium for Silver Creek – the CDC began work on the Draft EIS to make sure there was a complete plan for the site that would address the effects it may or may not have on the surrounding area.

“This process is whereby we do due diligence to make sure that we understand the impacts we have on the area and also we invite public involvement in case we are unaware of something,” Tarr said.

“These guys live here every day, and we want to make sure that they have an opportunity to inform us of things that maybe need further investigation before the government makes a decision to either do something here or not.”

When the CDC advertised for interested property owners, the proposal included criteria the property must meet, which the Mace property fits.

NIOSH associate director for science Jeff Welsh said the limestone in the Mace site is ideal for the facility.

“We do want a hard rock like that to do our work, and it is better than some of the softer, shaley type rock,” he said.

The facility will resemble a coal mine and will include tunnels and a main chamber where the research will take place.

“The main problem that we want to look into, and we’re doing it at Lake Lynn, is preventing mine explosions,” Welsh said. “That’s the key work, but there will be other types of research. What we’ll create is an underground structure of passageways like tunnels, like a mine, so that we can conduct full-scale research.”

If the site is selected and the facility is approved, it will take roughly four years to complete the project. The facility will have 10 to 12 full-time employees, and researches from NIOSH facilities in Morgantown and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will also use the site.

“Our customers are mine workers – all types of mine workers – surface and underground mine workers, and we look at how they are injured and health hazards they are exposed to, and it’s our mission to prevent injuries and health exposures,” Welsh added.

Several people attended the meeting – some of whom approved the proposed facility and others who opposed it. They shared their thoughts with the CDC and NIOSH representatives, and a court recorder was on hand to officially record statements from those interested in being on record for the EIS.

David Litsey, one of the Mace property owners, said he is supportive of the project and hopes the CDC can put the land to good use.

“It gave us the opportunity to work with something that I believe in,” Litsey said. “My dad was the deputy director of safety with the Army during the Vietnam War and as a youngster growing up, safety was our thing. So working on safety and what these guys want to do, it’s a real deal. I just think it’s a great opportunity for economic development in this area, and I just hope it goes.”

Mace resident George Bell, who lives across from the property being considered has concerns about the construction process and how the facility will affect his well.

“I think that the GSA and the CDC have produced a woefully insufficient document for us to make any decisions with,” he said. “I believe that they have not done due diligence on many aspects of the impacts that can and will occur. [They’re] going to drill a hole down to just a little above the level of my well and take the water with pumps to the surface – any water that they encounter – which doesn’t bode well with me because there’s no provision to give me water when they either ruin it or use it all. I’m one of the closest residents to the project.”

Bell’s other concerns include the use of a fence to enclose the area, noise that may be caused by the site and ventilation fans and contaminants that may be produced by the facility.

Slaty Fork resident Tolly Peluche also shared her concerns for the environment that will be disturbed by the construction of the facility, but agreed that the EIS is a draft and there is a chance to make changes after concerns are shared.

“It’s a draft,” she said. “There is a chance they can make it better. They say they don’t want it to be in a place where there is coal because it’s too dangerous. They want to do this test with limestone where it’s safer. I understand that. You can’t tell me that this is the only place in the United States that they could have chosen. From an environmental standpoint, I feel they could have picked a better site. I just think this area has been beat on enough.”

The proposed site is located in both Pocahontas and Randolph counties and the initial plan shows that the entrance to the facility will be located in Randolph County with most of the underground elements in Pocahontas County.

The CDC will take into consideration all the concerns and information shared at Wednesday night’s  meeting as well as comments which can be submitted to www.regulations.gov (follow the instructions for submitting comments; you may use one or more of the following keywords to locate the project: CDC NIOSH, Site Acquisition, Underground Safety Research Program, HHS) or by mail to: Sam Tarr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Road N.E., MS-K80, Atlanta, Georgia 30329-4027.

All comments must be sent on or before April 5, 2019.

If you have a question on how to comment, please send it to cdc-macewv-eis@cdc.gov

A copy of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is available for review Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at The Pocahontas Times, 206 8th Street in Marlinton.