HAZARD — Approximately 30 people packed the courtroom of the Perry County Fiscal Court on Wednesday, July 23, for a special meeting concerning the temporary closure of Clear Fork Branch Road in Grapevine. Despite the concerns raised by many of those in attendance, the court voted 3-to-1 to close the road for an indefinite period of time.
Pine Branch Mining, a local coal company, requested the road be closed so that it could safely expand operations. Officials for the coal company, who were present at the meeting, indicated that, without the court’s approval of the road closure, they would have to shut down operations in the Spencer Fork/Clear Fork area, which would result in the loss of at least 45 jobs.
However, frequent travelers of the road argued that the road’s closure would not only be an inconvenience for them, but it would also put lives in jeopardy.
“It’s going to increase our travel time by double,” said Carol Howard, a resident of Rock Lick, who says the Clear Fork Branch Road is the quickest route to Chavies and Buckhorn, where many of the area’s children attend school.
The alternative for drivers is to take the longer Chavies-Dunraven Road (often called “river road”), which winds through locations in Krypton and Chavies, or, if they should need to go to Hazard, Sam Campbell’s Branch Road, which, according to most of those in attendance, is in very poor condition.
“During wintertime, there’s no way we’ll be able to go out that way. Those roads aren’t touched, and they’re extremely dangerous,” Howard said.
Constable Ben Stidham, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter for Grapevine-Chavies, said he was worried about the added time it would take for the fire department to respond to emergency calls from the affected areas.
“If we have to go up [Highway] 15 and back down Sam Campbell’s Branch, it adds 4 miles, which is at an estimated 7 minutes,” Stidham said. “You know, life or death, 7 minutes is a long time.”
It would take even longer, Stidham said, if the fire department had to use the Chavies-Dunraven Road.
Sarah Howard, a local school teacher from Rock Lick, said Clear Fork Branch Road was the safest and fastest way for her to go to work.
“When I worked at Willard, and I came back through Sam’s Branch, thinking that I could beat that snow squall,” she said, “I saw a woman go over a hill and it changed my life. And that could be one of us.”
Coal company officials countered with their own safety concerns, citing the dangers motorists would face should they be allowed to travel anywhere near the road while blasting and other mining practices occurred.
“It would be more dangerous for the public going through there than for them to go through the other way,” Noble said.
Noble also pointed out that the coal company would be reducing the grade of the road by 70 to 80 feet, which would ultimately benefit people traveling that road in the future.
The citizens protesting the road closure said they were not against coal mining, but they felt the closing of the road would have more negative consequences for them than good.
Ultimately, the court devised a compromise.
“We’ll do an agreement with the coal company that, if they blacktop the Sam Campbell’s Branch Road so those people will have better access in and out, we’ll go ahead and agree with them to the closing of the other road,” Noble explained.
As far as the ongoing upkeep of the road, Judge Noble said his successor in office would have to be responsible for that. Noble’s term as Perry County County Judge-Executive will end in January of 2015.
Noble said he wasn’t happy that people will be “put out of their way,” especially because the project could take quite some time.
“In the long run, when everything is said and done, it’ll help the miners keep their jobs … In the long run, that road is going to be safer for the public to travel. It’ll never be interfered with anymore. And they’re going to have a better road coming out, going through Sam’s Branch to Hazard,” Noble said.
Coal company officials could not determine a definite length of time that the road would be closed, but indicated that it could be anywhere from 6 months to 5 years.
No date was set for the closing of the road, but Judge Noble said he and officials from Pine Branch Mining would begin assessing the situation on Monday, July 28.
The Herald reached out to Pine Branch Mining, but a request for comment was not returned before press time.
Mindy Miller can be reached at 606-436-5771, or on Twitter @HazardHerald.