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Protesters arrested at coal firm Alpha's HQ in Va

State filed

BRISTOL, Va. (AP) -- Several environmental activists were arrested Friday after blocking the road leading to the headquarters for Alpha Natural Resources Inc. to protest the coal producer's mining practices.

The members of Radical Action for Mountain Peoples' Survival chained themselves and large industrial equipment to a bridge railing, which prevented Alpha employees from getting to work for about an hour. They were protesting Alpha's use of mountaintop removal mining and coal slurry impoundments.

The activists hauled in a 250-gallon tanker with non-toxic black water to symbolize the dammed-up wastewater from coal operations that they believe threatens coalfields residents.

The road to the company's offices was reopened shortly before 10 a.m., said Capt. Maynard Ratcliff of the Bristol Police Department. Specific charges are pending against the about five people who were arrested.

Besides demanding an end to mountaintop removal mining — a particularly effective but destructive form of strip mining — the activists also called on Alpha to stop seeking an expansion of the Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment in southern West Virginia.

A plan approved by federal regulators earlier this year would let the impoundment near Whitesville grow to a height taller than the Hoover Dam.

In central Appalachia, coal companies use impoundments to dispose of both "coarse refuse," or larger pieces of rock separated from coal during the cleaning process, and "fine refuse," or clay, silt and sand-size particles. Fine refuse is pumped in from the processing plant to the reservoir behind the coarse refuse. Over time, the "fines" are supposed to settle to the bottom, compressing and solidifying.

At Brushy Fork, the water that remains is pumped out. Though the coal slurry impoundment has never failed, some citizen-activists question whether it was properly built. They fear the years-old waste inside has never properly compacted and dried, meaning Alpha could be building on an unstable base.

Since 2009, Brushy Fork has held 6.5 billion gallons of coal waste that Alpha says is mostly solid, not liquid.

"The facility is designed and engineered to high standards," said Alpha spokesman Ted Pile. "In essence, we think we're doing all we can do to maintain a safe and sound structure."

Pile confirmed that employees were blocked from getting to the company's office, which was seen as "much more than an inconvenience."

"More than two dozen public safety officials had to come here and take care of these people when there are far more pressing issues for them to deal with in the community," he said.

Alpha has more than 160 mines and processing plants in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.