OU hires environmental attorney for Dysart Woods case
November 27, 2002
By Jim Phillips
Athens NEWS Senior Writer

Ohio University will hire a prominent Athens-based environmental attorney to look after its interests in Dysart Woods, an old-growth forest in Belmont County that could become the site of a coal-mining operation.

John Burns, OU's director of legal affairs, confirmed Monday that the university is taking steps to retain Robert Shostak to handle any legal matters that arise from a state mining permit applied for by the Ohio Valley Coal Co., to mine under Dysart. Shostak is a highly experienced attorney who has been dealing with coal mining regulatory law for more than 30 years.

When Dysart supporters held a demonstration on OU campus earlier this month, one of their central demands to university President Robert Glidden was that OU hire an attorney specifically to handle the case.

Ohio Valley, based in Alledonia, Ohio, owns the coal under the woods, which is probably the state's most significant stand of old-growth forest and contains trees that are centuries old. OU owns the land itself.

Currently, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is considering a permit application from Ohio Valley to mine under the entire forest. The coal company plans to use deep underground room-and-pillar mining, rather than the more destructive longwall method. Some environmental groups say that even room-and-pillar should be forbidden under Dysart as posing too great a risk to the old trees, though OU officials have said they may accept it as a compromise plan.

Burns of OU said Monday that officials of the Ohio Attorney General's Office have given verbal approval to retain Shostak's services on any intervention OU undertakes into the permit process.

"They've told me they will appoint Bob Shostak," Burns confirmed. "We don't have the appointment back yet, but they've agreed to do that." Burns himself has been handling legal chores regarding Dysart for the university, and "I'd like to have somebody who can help me," he said.

He added that it's important to have an attorney retained ahead of time, in case the state does grant Ohio Valley a mining permit, and OU decides to contest it.

Shostak said Tuesday that while he's not yet fully up to speed on the issues surrounding Dysart, he has been to the forest and is well aware of its great value, and can see a number of different legal routes that could be taken to help protect it.

He noted, for example, that the state could choose to grant the permit with conditions. If this happens, he said, state law allows for impacted landowners such as OU to have input on what those conditions are. "That's an important item," he said.

Another possibility, Shostak said, would be for OU and Ohio Valley to privately negotiate a side agreement to help ensure that the mining operation doesn't harm Dysart's core of ancient trees. "That could be outside any permit or action on the permit," he added.

Another option, of course, would be to appeal the mining permit if it's granted. Shostak said at this point, OU is still trying to collect scientific information on what impact the mining plan could have on the woods, which will play an important role in its decision on how to proceed.

"Even room-and-pillar mining can cause problems," he added.

Chad Kister, who heads the group Dysart Defenders, has been one of the most zealous voices opposing any mining under Dysart. Kister said Tuesday that he's pleased to see OU hiring an attorney specifically to address the mining issue.

"I think that is a good step for the university, hiring such a high-powered lawyer to work on this issue," he said. "And I just hope that they make sure to appeal the... permit (seeking approval to mine under all of Dysart)."