A plan to revitalize a poverty-stricken corner of rural southwestern Virginia by upgrading a local airport has stalled, because Washington officials say the runway-extension project is a coal mine, requiring hard-to-get federal permits.

Three years ago, officials in Grundy, Va. teamed up with Alpha Natural Resources, a local coal mining company, to extend Grundy Municipal Airport’s 2,200-foot runway to 5,700 feet. The longer runway would comply with insurance standards for corporate jets. Eager to attract businesses and investments to the mountainous area, Buchanan County, where Grundy is located, recently developed a 1,200-acre mixed-use business park not far from the airport. Upgrading the Grundy airport to accommodate corporate jets was deemed essential to connect the isolated community to the outside world. Currently, Grundy and Buchanan County are accessible only over mountainous roads.

The construction plan called for ground at the end of the runway to be dug up, the coal deposits contained therein to be removed and sold, and the site brought up to rough grade. Newly poured concrete would then create an additional 3,500 feet of runway for Grundy’s airport. Proceeds from the one-time sale of the coal would help finance the project.

The plan, however, has stalled, because the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) at the U.S. Department of Interior claims the construction project is really a coal mine, requiring federal mining permits. Despite pleas from local and state officials, OSM has refused to budge. By contrast, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy approved the process, because state officials consider the matter an airport construction project that is exempt from needing a mining permit. The feds, however, have the final say.

“It’s almost unbelievable that something like this is happening,” state Sen. Philip E. Puckett (D), told the Washington Times (October 18). “It really should never have gotten to that point in my opinion, but it’s hard to tell the feds what they are supposed to be doing.”

The delay has been costly. Three years ago, the coal that underlies the airport would have fetched around $20 million, according to the Times. Coal has since declined in price, undermining the financing of the airport project. Given the Obama’s administration’s fundamental hostility to the coal industry, few expect the OSM to back down. Buchanan County officials are now trying to re-route the whole procedure through the Federal Aviation Administration, in the hope that the FAA will bring a degree of regulatory sanity to the mountains of southwestern Virginia.