Environment

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.

JB: Folks have literally been fighting for decades to place the Blair Mountain Battlefield on the National Register. What’s the latest with the National Park Service, and Keeper of the National Register–and do you think any state or federal agencies should be investigated for regulatory violations?

BN: Yes, efforts to get the battlefield on the NRHP have been going on since the early 1980s. The first nomination area was around 20,000 acres, and then it was taken down to 3200 acres, then to 1600 acres today. In 2005, the nomination was finally accepted by Keeper of the National Register. It was listed for about a month in 2009. It was then delisted after eight property owner objectors’ letters were ‘found’ by the WVSHPO, and this turned the balance (for NRHP listing a simple majority of property owners decide whether or not a site is listed). This list included two deceased ‘objectors’ and was gerrymandered to exclude property owners who were known to support the nomination.

As far any agency being investigated, I think every agency in West Virginia should be investigated for corruption, from the Governor to the DEP to the local political machines in southern West Virginia. Corruption is so rampant here; it is just a way of life. I know that is a very general answer, but the truth is that politics in southern West Virginia are rotten to the core, and I couldn’t even tell someone where to begin.

JB: Why are you encouraging supporters to contact Gov. Tomblin to place an immediate stay of execution any mining on the battlefield, and do you feel there is any hope within WV for a resolution to preserve Blair Mtn?

BN: Because the WVDEP has primacy over these permits, they are the agency that can stop the destruction of Blair Mountain. But, they only answer to Governor Tomblin. The Governor does have the influence to rein in the WVDEP, and so he is the focus of a concerted effort to contact him and ask him to preserve the Blair Mountain battlefield.

As cynical as I usually am about West Virginia politics, there is a chance that some legislation may be passed to halt any surface mining on Blair Mountain. Some key legislators have signaled their support, and so we have people working to put that forward.

JB: Last year, as part of the annual Appalachian Rising gathering, a thousand people from around the country converged on Blair Mtn for a special march and protest. Given the level of funding and organization expenditures, how have you or Appalachia Rising followed up with the participants over the past year and built on the march organization?

BN: The Appalachia Rising event at Blair Mountain was the collective result of many organizations across central Appalachia, and we have all maintained and built upon those networks. With the March on Blair Mountain, we had many young organizers stepping into key roles and who gained valuable experience. This year, I’d like to see Appalachia Rising all across Appalachia and the country. We have the experience, communication, and networks to coordinate this with each local organization working in their own way for mass mobilizations across the coalfields to halt MTR.

More locally, some of the most intensive but less-visible work of organizing the March was going door-to-door along the march route months before the event. This helped start discussions, raise awareness, and bolster support in the local area. During the march, the results were seen all along the way by people who came out to show support. Certainly, we had our detractors, but the majority of locals were supportive.

We have followed up on that most specifically by opening the Blair Community Center and Museum, in Blair, WV. This came directly from the march, when the son of Winnie Fox, an ardent anti-MTR activist who passed away this year, agreed to let us use an old Methodist church he owned in Blair. So, the march ended with something very concrete in that we have a foothold in Logan, WV, the belly of the beast of the coal industry, in a community that supports the work we do.

JB: Describe the plans for your new Blair Community Center and how people can support you? Are you working with WV schools, as well, to teach the history of Blair Mtn, coal mining, union rights?

BN: First, the community of Blair was almost destroyed in the late 1990s by an Arch Coal MTR operation directly behind the town. Currently, multiple MTR permits are converging on the town, plus a longwall miner underground. The community has gone from about 700 people in the 1990s to about 90 people today. Quite frankly, Blair is being destroyed by Arch Coal.

So, the Community Center and Museum has multiple purposes. We educate and raise awareness of the history of coalmining and struggles for union rights such as at Blair Mountain. We also operate our Friends of Blair Mountain office out of here to preserve the battlefield. Additionally, we work to bring vibrancy back to Blair by stimulating local economic developments centered on tourism of the Blair Mountain battlefield. We also maintain a space within the community to socialize. We’ve already had multiple events, and we are developing more for the spring and summer. We work with community members to address their problems when Arch Coal tries to treat them roughshod. We just try to be good neighbors, to contribute to the community as best we can.

One of our major projects is attempting to bring a heavy-duty reverse osmosis water filtration system to the Community Center. Blair has completely toxic drinking water, and everyone has to buy their water since municipal water lines do not run to the town. We are working on getting a filling station constructed where people can get free and clean drinking water.

People can support us in many ways, from donating money, to spreading the word, to writing their congress people, or even joining in the effort by getting in with a working group, just contact us at friendsofblairmountain@gmail.com. If you’d like to donate, you do so by going to either of our sites, www.friendsofblairmountain.org or www.blairmountainmuseum.org.

JB: While UMWA officials are supporters of preserving the Blair Mtn. Battlefield from strip mining, the UWMA has openly supported non-union mountaintop removal operations (proposed at Spruce, for example) and defends other massive MTR operations, such as Hobet. Do you consider the impact of MTR on Blair Mtn and its residents more important than the impact of other UMWA-supported MTR operations, and why should funds and resources be expended to protect the battlefield, as opposed to other areas being destroyed by the UMWA?

BN: The Blair Mountain battlefield is only one of hundreds of mountains that have been destroyed or are slated for destruction. Every single mountain deserves to be saved. I am first and foremost an Appalachian, and my allegiance is to the people around me rather than any single organization. The UMWA has done a lot of good for coalminers, ones I know personally here in Blair. But, on the mountaintop removal issue, I believe they are on the wrong side of history. We’re working on engaging in dialogue to change this. There are some really good people in the UMWA, and we hope to continue to build unity and pragmatic solutions where we can.

Recently, peer-reviewed science has been accumulating that mountaintop removal operations are killing people with cancer, causing birth defects, and a host of other illnesses. In other words, the occupational hazards of coal extraction are being externalized onto surrounding communities. These communities are often composed of active and retired mining families. In this regard, the UMWA hopefully will work, as they have historically done, to limit the occupational hazards of coal mining both for their workers and mining communities.

There is a lot of room to move forward with innovative and pragmatic solutions that the UMWA and groups like the Sierra Club can work together on. Our common foe is the multinational corporations, and I’ve always said it doesn’t matter if you die in a rock fall or by cancer, the pain is the same for those who have to bear it. We need to come together, and engage in open conversation. I can’t pretend to know what the UMWA is facing right now as an organization, and what their members want. I do know that I would like to have an honest discussion, have everyone put their heads together, and figure out a solution.

To me, solidarity is a very strong concept that crosses boundaries and labels such as labor and green. That is part of the heritage of Blair Mountain, where the normal lines that divided people, such as race back in 1921, were overcome. That is the heritage we attempt to both preserve and honor in our work.

JB: Other comments?

BN: In the end, both the town of Blair and the Blair Mountain battlefield will be destroyed if Arch Coal is not stopped soon. And this is just one mountain and one town in Appalachia. Many more communities are being destroyed by MTR, and people are sickened and poisoned. Right now is the time to stop this; the people of Appalachia can’t wait any longer to stop MTR. It truly is killing us. 

Jeff Biggers is the American Book Award-winning author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation/Basic Books), among other books. Visit his website: www.jeffbiggers.com