When Chancellor Holden Thorp and other UNC brass address the campuses’ use of coal, “according to our suppliers” is almost always a part of the explanation. According to the suppliers, coal sent to Chapel Hill isn’t a product of mountaintop removal; it’s mostly deep mined, with a “small portion” from surface mines.

However, at least one of the mining companiesRed River Coal Companyreportedly has connections to mountaintop removal.

The Red River Mine sold UNC more than 106,000 tons of coal at a cost of $8.4 million from 2007 to 2009, according to university documents. Last year, Red River Mine was the largest supplier to UNC. It is owned by the Red River Coal Company, which has several mines and uses mountaintop removal at some of them, according to Matt Wasson, director of programs for the Boone-based Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit concerned with the protection of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains.

It is unclear if Red River Mine is among those that use mountaintop removal; Red River Coal Company officials refused to comment about their mining practices and declined the Indy‘s request for interviews.

The Red River Coal Company Web site says it uses surface and deep mining, but The Bristol (Va.) Herald reported in a Feb. 8 story about the effects of coal mining on nearby communities that the Red River Coal Company uses mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is the most environmentally harmful mining method. Workers detonate explosives to blow the tops off of mountains to get at the coal. As a result, the “fill” from the detonations collects in streams, killing aquatic life. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that 380,000 acres of forest have been flattened, stripped or otherwise irreparably damaged from mountaintop removal.

Wasson described Red River founder William Humphreys as “one of the biggest MTR operators in Virginia. These are huge mountaintop removal operations on Black Mountain on the border of Virginia and Kentucky,” Wasson wrote in an e-mail.

The Indy filed an open records request to learn more about UNC’s sources of coal and received two pages of data dating to 2005. UNC listed the coal vendors, mines and their locations and costs for all coal purchases during that time. The documents list nine minesseven in Virginia and two in Kentucky.

Twin Star, Bell County and Blackwood mines, the suppliers from 2005 to July 2007, were ditched for Crossbrook, D&C and Red River, which still ship coal down rail lines to Chapel Hill. Sigmon and Gravity Yard provided “emergency coal” during the first five months of 2008.

All these mines lie along the Virginia-Kentucky border, due north of Boone, Asheville and Knoxville, Tenn., and in the heart of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Together, they sent 565,273 tons of coal to UNC in the past five years.

Thorp claims that UNC’s coal use, which the school plans to phase out by 2050, is as minimally damaging as possible to the environment. But activists familiar with the coal industry dispute Thorp’s contention.

Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, says university officials should diligently check the supply chain of campus coal.

“The stories coming out of Appalachia are heartbreaking,” Nilles said. “The university should be having an honest discussion about where this coal is coming from and meeting with local residents.

“If there’s one incredible injustice going on in the United States that most people don’t know anything about, it’s the destruction of Appalachia.”

The Indy has requested records on the eight mines that are sources of UNC coal from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. The records requests had not been filled by press time.