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Seven universities form Appalachian energy, environment research initiative


BLACKSBURG, Va., March 31, 2011 – A consortium of major research universities has formed a new initiative to address the environmental impacts of the discovery, development, production, and use of energy resources in Appalachia. The Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES), under the direction of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech, will study both upstream and downstream issues related to the energy sector.

"The energy resources of Appalachia have long been critical to the economies of Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, as well as all the other states that depend on those resources to provide energy for their citizens," said Coal Center Director Michael Karmis. "ARIES provides the means by which we can explore new frontiers so that continued development of our energy resources occurs in a safe and environmentally protective way, backed by sound science and research."

ARIES will initially focus its studies on the coal industry, conducting scientific inquiry and research, publishing findings, and disseminating research results to all stakeholders. The initiative will engage established researchers, representing an array of disciplines and expertise, from Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

"These universities have a track record of world-class research which has been sponsored by federal and state agencies and environmental and community organizations, as well as industrial partners," said Robert Walters, vice president for research at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said, "The innovative researchers involved in ARIES bring together vast knowledge and experience from multiple disciplines. Multi-institution collaboration will provide the perspective needed to address such critical environmental and energy issues as protecting human health and quality of life and improving mining practices."

The technical scope of the research ARIES will conduct includes

  • Evaluating the effects of coal mining on streams and biological communities in the region;
  • Investigating methods for effectively minimizing water discharges through alternative water management practices and treating water prior to discharge;
  • Developing analytical tools to allow mine planners to locate, isolate, and manage strata that may generate releases of environmental concern; and
  • Assessing improved placement designs and spearheading development of mining engineering systems and practices that can improve environmental performance and accountability.

"In concert with these enabling technical studies, regional investigations will better define socio-economic factors and overall health and quality of life issues in coal mining regions and address short- and long-term development of community well-being," said Karmis.

"We believe that good scientific research on natural resources, safety, and environmental issues is a key way to sustain the viability of the industry. Only by knowing what the facts are about the impacts of mining can elected officials then make sound policy decisions that support jobs and energy security while maintaining the health and well-being of the environment and communities of Appalachia. ARIES will provide the needed research to make that happen," said Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha Natural Resources.

ARIES was founded in cooperation with a number of industrial affiliates. These industry partners are committed to the goals of ARIES, the need to employ the best science to ensure the long-term health of the environment and communities throughout Appalachia, and the dissemination of the research results for the benefits of all stakeholders. Ben Hatfield, CEO and director of International Coal Group, said, "Every day we expect our employees to operate our mines based on proven engineering and scientific principles. We know that leads to the best performance in safety, environmental compliance, and productivity. However, the ongoing public debate about coal mining in Appalachia has raised many legitimate questions that can only be answered through independent investigation. The universities working together under ARIES will apply scientific rigor to the study of those important issues."

At its launch, ARIES' industrial partners include: Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, Massey Energy, Natural Resource Partners, TECO Coal Corporation, Patriot Coal Corporation, Cliffs Natural Resources, Mepco, and Norfolk Southern. These partners have committed to fund ARIES with a $12.5 million grant over the next five years. "Other companies are expected to join in the future, but work at the universities under ARIES will commence immediately," said Karmis.

For additional information on ARIES, contact John Craynon, ARIES project director, Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, at (540) 231-9462.

The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research was created by an Act of the Virginia General Assembly on March 30, 1977, as an interdisciplinary study, research, information and resource facility for the Commonwealth of Virginia. In July of that year, a directive approved by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors placed the center under the University Provost because of its intercollegiate character, and because the center's mandate encompasses the three missions of the university: instruction, research and extension.