Partners Reclaim WV Mining Site for

Thu January 16, 2003 - Northeast Edition
James E. Casto

The scenic Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River that flows between Kentucky and West Virginia is a place of history and legend.

It is here that the Hatfields and the McCoys fought their storied feud and it is here, too, that people still like to tell the tale of how Twisted Gun Gap got its name.

As the story goes, two of the region’s early white settlers found themselves pursued by a band of Indians intent on lifting their scalps. Realizing escape was impossible, the two took their single rifle and wrapped it around a tree lest it fall into the hands of the pursuing Indians.

Now a new chapter is being written in the legend of Twisted Gun — the construction of a world-class golf course on a former mountaintop removal mining site.

Where bulldozers, end-loaders and dump trucks once scooped up and carted off rocks and trees to uncover the coal beneath, the mammoth machines have flattened and shaped the rocky terrain into the fairways and greens of a par-72, 18-hole golf course.

Twisted Gun Golf Course, a two-hour drive from Charleston, is located between the right and left forks of Ben Creek, approximately 7 mi. from Gilbert in Mingo County. It opened this summer and is getting rave reviews from its first players, reported Jim Mullins, the general manager of Mingo Logan Coal Co., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Arch Coal and one of three corporate partners in the innovative reuse project.

“People thought that this was going to be a big cow pasture with 18 holes drilled in it,” said Mullins. “Well, they were wrong. This is one of the best public courses anywhere.”

Until now, the highly rural counties of Mingo, McDowell and Logan in southern West Virginia did not have an 18-hole golf course due to the considerable expense of course development in the region’s mountainous terrain.

The new course is a joint venture by Mingo Logan Coal; Premier Energy Corp, a contract mining firm that performed the actual mining at the site; and Pocahontas Land Corp., which owns the property.

Federal law requires that a post-mining use be stipulated before any tract can be surface mined. Often that use is broadly generic, such as “wildlife habitat.” But in the case of the Twisted Gun site the partner companies agreed even before mining began in 1995 that it would be an ideal site for a golf course. Each of the three agreed to place a royalty of 10 cents for each ton of coal mine into an escrow account that eventually, with interest, totaled $2.6 million.

In addition, the companies also agreed to pay for constructing 3 mi. of a 5-mi. access road. The West Virginia Division of Highways funded the other 2 mi.

“As we mined the site,” explained Mullins, “we reclaimed it as if we were building a golf course. That saved both time and mining.”

With the mining completed in mid-2001, the site was named the winner of the David C. Callaghan Award for 2001. The award, presented annually to the best mining reclamation project in the state, is jointly sponsored by the West Virginia Coal Association and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Initially, said Mullins, the thought was that the state of West Virginia would take over the completed golf course and operate it as part of the state park system. When the state had second thoughts about that idea, the partners agreed to operate it themselves. Each has kicked in another $250,000 to get the course open.

The three companies will continue to subsidize operation of Twisted Gun for three years. That, it’s hoped, will be enough time for the course to get into the swing of things and attract the players needed to be self-supporting. Then, the three will decide whether to keep it, sell it, turn it over to the county or otherwise dispose of it.

Don Nicewonder, president of Premium Energy, and his nephew Mark, have played the leading role in the design of the course. Don Nicewonder earlier had a hand in designing the Virginian course in Bristol, VA. The course’s tees, fairways and greens are built on reclaimed areas that have been covered with a layer of topsoil and grass.

An authentic Norfolk Southern boxcar and caboose serve as restrooms and shelter on the course. Large rocks that came from the mining operation are strategically placed around the course — potential hazards for errant shots.

The course, as Mullins predicted, challenges golfers.

“You have to hit it straight,” he said. “That’s for sure. The rough is full of rocks and rattlesnakes. I’m just kidding. Seriously, if you hit the ball out of bounds, you hit it out of bounds. It’s a tough course.”