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Should Arch Coal Be Allowed to Destroy Historic Blair Mountain Battlefield?

Arch coal may be planning mining and mountaintop removal operations within the boundaries of one of the most important labor and civil rights monuments in the nation.

St. Louis-based Arch Coal reared its head as the king of hubris a year ago, refusing to pay an  extra 55 cents a ton for coal in order to meet proper EPA and Clean Water Act standards for a controversial mountaintop removal operation in West Virginia.

According to Blair Mountain area residents, Arch might be doubling down on its hubris now, as indications emerge daily of possible preparations for devastating strip mining and mountaintop removal operations within the boundaries of one of the most important labor and civil rights monuments in the nation: The  Blair Mountain Battlefield in West Virginia, where thousands of coal miners and impoverished World War I veteran sought to liberate terrorized mining camps that had been denied any right to union organizing.

Nearly three years ago, many of our nation’s most prominent scholars, historians and archaeologists–including the president of the Society for Historical Archaeology, the former president of the American Historical Society, officers of the Appalachian Studies Association–made a direct appeal to then WV Gov. Joe Manchin:

“The Blair Mountain Battlefield is a unique historic and cultural treasure that deserves recognition and protection… No doubt much remains to be discovered, and scholars must be able to continue to study this important chapter in American history..We are concerned that the recent attempt to delist Blair Mountain from the National Register may be a first step toward strip-mining the mountain for coal production, which will destroy the historic site. The National Park Service found that the battlefield is both significant and intact, and we believe it must be preserved for future generations.”

Three years and a host of regulatory gamesmanship later, the Blair Mountain Battlefield and area residents still remain beholden to the whims of Big Coal machinations.

While Friends of Blair Mountain director Brandon Nida journeys to St. Louis for an emergency meeting on Friday, anti-mountaintop removal activists in West Virginia are launching several publicity offenses, including various  letter writing campaigns, and a protest Friday in Huntington, West Virginia at the headquarters of Natural Resource Partners, one of Arch Coal’s leasing partners.

Nida, a West Virginia native who served three years as an airborne infantryman, is currently a doctoral student in archaeology at UC Berkeley, and serves as the executive director of Friends of Blair Mountain in Blair, West Virginia. Prior to his departure to St. Louis, we did this interview on the latest news and mining activities in the Blair Mountain Battlefield area.

Jeff Biggers: What state or federal agency is ultimately in charge of investigating whether Arch Coal is blasting within the National Register Battlefield Boundary?

Brandon Nida: Surface mining is regulated under federal law, but primacy over the permits has been granted to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). But if significant disruption of waterways is planned then the Corps of Engineers is involved, along with the EPA. With federal involvement sites that are eligible for or listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) have certain protections. Blair Mountain is eligible but not listed on the NRHP. West Virginia law is written so that there is a distinction between ‘eligible’ and ‘listed’, and only listed sites get protected. So, coal companies are designing their plans so that only the WVDEP is involved in issuing and regulating permits.

JB: Given that the Blair Mountain Battlefield is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, what regulatory protections are in place to prevent any possible destruction?

BN: This depends on each particular permit, and we are dealing with five different permits. If it involves any federal agency, the Section 106 guidelines for protection of historic properties must be followed whether it is listed or eligible on the NRHP. But the WVDEP does not view Blair Mountain as deserving of any serious protection or research, due to the distinction in state law about ‘eligible’ and ‘listed’ properties. Even with strong objections by the WV State Historic Preservation Officer – see here  – the WVDEP flippantly issues permits that impact the battlefield.

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