Highwall to commercial site: Project Intersection demolition nears start

Mike Still • Jun 30, 2020 at 2:00 PM

NORTON — In the next 30-60 days, the highwall overlooking the crossroads of U.S. Route 23 and U.S. Alternate Route 58 will become a memory.

Project Intersection — a joint venture between Norton and Wise, Lee, Scott and Dickenson counties’ Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority (LPRIFA) — is nearing the start of blasting and removing the remnant of surface mining that overlooks the two highways and 40 years of commercial development on Norton’s outskirts.

“We’re taking an unusable piece of property that was a safety issue and turning it into a viable commercial or industrial site,” said Norton City Manager Fred Ramey. The city, as an LPRIFA member, is handling much of the project administration.

Seventy-five feet will come off the top of the highwall, which has seen debris slide problems in the past few years.

While Project Intersection first envisioned in 2017 development of three sites between the highwall area and Hawthorne Drive, behind the Virginia-Kentucky Regional Shopping Center, LPRIFA Executive Director Duane Miller said planners soon realized that eliminating the highwall would provide two benefits: eliminating an unstable geographic feature and developing a fourth site.

Since the highwall was a leftover from surface mining in that area from the 1970s, Miller said, Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program funds administered by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) could be applied to Project Intersection.

“DMME pilot money will help remove one of the most famous or infamous landmarks in the area, depending on how you look at it,” said Miller.

After LPRIFA acquired the project land with a combined $2.35 million in Pilot Program and state Tobacco Commission money, another $1.58 million was allocated to the highwall removal. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic was slowing down a lot of business activity in Southwest Virginia, preliminary work progressed.

By April, Old Dominion Power (ODP) had moved a transmission line from atop the highwall. Contractors cleared trees and brush in April to avoid habitat impact issues with the Northern long-eared bat in that area, Ramey said.

Miller and LPRIFA Coordinator Craig Seaver each said that ODP and DMME have been a major help in getting near to demolition work.

“Without Old Dominion helping on the power lines, we couldn’t have gotten this done as fast as we are now,” Seaver said.

Glass Machinery and Excavation has started getting heavy machinery to the site, and project managers have done pre-blasting surveys of businesses and homes. Ramey said blasting permits are being obtained, and project managers are working with the Virginia Department of Transportation on what impact blasting and excavation will have on U.S. 23 traffic this summer.

“We anticipate that daily blasts will be part of the process,” Ramey said, adding that the safety and traffic plan will be announced soon.

Once removed, the highwall becomes site four in Project Intersection. Each of the sites will have utilities, road access from Hawthorne Drive and broadband infrastructure access, Miller said. Another $3.5 million in Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program funds and more than $900,000 in Appalachian Regional Commission money will go to preparing all four sites, he added, and LPRIFA has applied for another $1.4 million in AML funds.

Under Virginia law, regional industrial facilities authorities can develop projects such as Project Intersection on a revenue sharing basis to benefit all localities in such an authority.

“DMME has really been wonderful to work with on this project,” Miller said.

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