[Jeff Biggers writes about the battlefield that commemorates one of labor’s historic battles: Blair Mountain. Coal corporate interests have combined to enlist the aid of dead people to approve the removal of Blair mountaintop. Surprise! Coal corporate profits will climb when the coal lying beneath the surface is revealed! This story was posted on Huffington Post. Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia and the forthcoming Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. — Lew Rosenbaum
Mountaintop Removal Mayhem: Blair Mtn Scandal (Feds See Dead People), Coal Profits Soar, EPA Disses Scientists
Who needs to go to the movie theatre to watch Avatar and the horrors of ruthless extraction companies when we have our own bizarre mountaintop removal policies at play. Check out the trailers for this week’s episodes:
UPDATE: 2pm EST: Great News for Black Mesa: The permit for the controversial Black Mesa Peabody strip mine in Arizona was vacated today by an Administrative Law Judge for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Wahleah Johns, co-director of Black Mesa Water Coalition and one of the petitioners in the appeal said, “As a community member of Black Mesa I am grateful for this decision. For 40 years our sacred homelands and people have borne the brunt of coal mining impacts, from relocation to depletion of our only drinking water source. This ruling is an important step towards restorative justice for Indigenous communities who have suffered at the hands of multinational companies like Peabody Energy.”
Blair Mountain Scandal: National Park Service and WV State Historic Preservation Officer See Dead People and Remove Historic Battlefield from Registry: This Friday, Jan. 8th, the Federal Register should post that the historic Blair Mountain Battlefield was removed from the National Register on December 30, 2009, despite the fact that TWO dead people are listed as landowning objectors!
(Note to Sen Robert Byrd: Your office needs to intervene in this outrageous scandal immediately.)
Scientists Diss Mountaintop Removal Policies: In a stunning new overview of the latest scientific studies, a group of leading scientists published a peer-reviewed paper this week in Science magazine that concludes: “Scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop removal is strong and irrefutable. Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.” The authors’ warning: “Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science.”
Whoops, EPA Regulators Ignore Science, Hands Out Massive MTR Permit, Claims 50% Reduction in Clean Water Act Crime is Progress: On the heels of a selenium expert testimony last year that the Mud River ecosystem faced “the brink of a major toxic event” from strip-mining discharges, the EPA opened the floodgates for the massive Hobet 45 mountaintop removal operation in West Virginia, which has already wiped out nearly 25 square miles. Hailing the blatant political compromise as an environmental victory, the EPA declared that only 15,000 linear feet–approximately three miles–of heathy stream channels would be destroyed–a smashing 50% reduction in Clean Water Act crimes.
The EPA declared it is “committed to working with all parties to ensure that our country’s energy, including coal based generation, is produced in a safe, healthier, and sustainable manner, and will “continue to rely on the best available science to evaluate mining projects…”
Sustainable coal? Best available science?
Didn’t the EPA even pay attention to Sen. Robert Byrd’s admonition last month: “The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.”
Big Coal Profits Soar With Mountaintop Removal News: Two whoops and a holler after the EPA gave the green light for the misguided Clean Water Act permit for the massive mountaintop removal operation in West Virginia this week, Big Coal giants in St. Louis–Arch and Patriot–saw their stocks skyrocket! According to MarketWatch, Patriot stocks “set a new high water mark for the past year.” Thanks EPA! And just when utilities coal stockpiles have increased during the summer for the first time in 25 years, and out-of-state coal companies are slashing mining jobs and idling higher-cost mines to keep their stock holders happy in a period of slumping demand.
The Blair Mountain Scandal, though, just might be the most bizarre show in town this week. On December 30, 2009, the historic Blair Mountain Battlefield was removed from the National Register by the Interim Keeper of the National Register, Carol Shull, despite the fact that the WV State Historic Preservation Officer list of land-owning objectors admittedly included TWO DEAD PEOPLE and two life estate holders–all of whom should be disqualified.
Not quite admittedly: In an email inquiry on January 6th, WV SHPO Susan Pierce wrote: “We cannot confirm or deny that there are no deceased on the SHPO list dated May 21, 2009.”
Wow, this is a remarkable statement: If the SHPO, whose state mandate is to “identify, recognize, preserve and protect West Virginia’s prehistoric and historic structures and sites,” openly doesn’t even know who is an objector on the Blair Mountain list, outside of what she has been told by the coal companies, should her office be investigated for regulatory negligence?
And what about the National Park Service, and Interim Keeper of the National Register, Carol Shull–should they be investigated for regulatory violations?
Some history: Last spring, the Blair Mountain Battlefield was finally listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Blair Mountain is not simply the site of the most famous labor battle in the coal wars, or the place of the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War, when thousands of union coal miners and World War I veterans literally marched and fought to liberate coal camps in southwestern West Virginia held hostage to the whims of ruthless absentee coal companies in 1921. Blair Mountain represents an attitude that is as relevant today as it was in 1921; that the long-term jobs and safety and health of coal miners and coal mining communities must be placed above the profit interests of outside coal companies. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also proclaimed Blair Mountain as one of our nation’s most endangered historic sites.
In 2005, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts declared:
“The UMWA has always believed the Blair Mountain battle site should be preserved, and I began publicly calling for it back in the 1980’s. We believe a monument should be erected at the site explaining what happened there, and that the road running through the site should be renamed Blizzard Highway, in honor of Bill Blizzard, the miners’ leader at Blair Mountain. We support preserving the land immediately around the battle site, because we believe it’s important for future generations to stand on that ground, and understand the importance of what happened there. This is also a personal issue for me and thousands of others from coal mining families who have relatives and ancestors who fought at Blair Mountain. What they did is a source of pride and inspiration to our families, and helps give us the strength to carry on their fight for justice. We will never forget it, nor should America.”
However, before the ink was dry on the National Registry, lawyers representing three out-of-state coal companies, including Massey Energy, somehow managed to round up new “objectors” to the Registry status, and asked the WV Division of Culture and History to issue a recount of the objectors vs. non-objectors. According to their own company report, “Jackson Kelly’s lawyers aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty…”
Now claiming there were more objectors than non-objectors among the landowners, West Virginia officials moved to have the historic battlefield delisted.
Enter Dr. Harvard Ayers, emeritus professor of archaeology and anthropology at Appalachian State University, and the Friends of Blair Mountain, who had personally identified 14 major battle sites in the area and nominated the battlefield for Registry recognition with historian Barbara Rassmussen.
During the SHPO comment period, Ayers hired a Charleston, WV real estate attorney, John Kennedy Bailey, who found that SHPO’s objector count had numerous inconsistencies. “Instead of 57 landowners including 30 objectors,” Ayers wrote, “we found that the numbers should be 61 landowners and only 25 legitimate objectors.” Ayers and his attorney submitted their findings–including the identification of two deceased listed as objectors, and two life estate holders (who are technically disqualified) within the comment period.
In April, a petition from a long list of some of the 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 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.”
SHPO, unlike their collaboration with the coal company lawyers, refused to acknowledge Ayers’ findings until last fall, when the National Park Service insisted the SHPO review Ayers comments. SHPO forwarded Ayers and his attorney Bailey’s findings to a WV Assistant Attorney General who concluded in November: “While I have not reviewed Mr. Bailey’s work in depth, I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of his conclusions.”
Strangely enough, failing to dispute the presence of two deceased people and other inconsistencies on their own lists, the SHPO wrote in their final report to the National Park Service: “Mr. Bailey’s work does not provide enough information to provide an accurate assessment.”
SHPO kept to its original count of objectors, dead people and all.
Prof. Ayers concluded:
“For the last nine months, my attorney and I have been battling not one but two bureaucracies, the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) of West Virginia, and the Keeper of the federal National Register of Historic Places of the National Park Service (NPS). It can be pretty frustrating as each agency says that the other is responsible for reviewing and evaluating your well-researched and timely property-owner data that would clearly overturn the NPS’s stated intention to de-list the Blair Mountain Battlefield. The sloppy property-owner work of the SHPO set the stage for my disenfranchisement, and the NPS refused to bother to take an objective look at the property owner data that my attorney and I gathered at the Logan County, West Virginia, courthouse.
I can’t believe the National Park Service would stand by letting the West Virginia SHPO turn in a list of property owners within the Battlefield when two of the 30 objectors are dead and gone, one for 27 years. Dead men don’t sign letters. Two others on the SHPO list of objectors are life-estate holders, a category the regulations do not recognize as an owner. Then there’s the matter of the 13 legitimate property owners within the Battlefield that the SHPO failed to identify with his superficial tax record research. Yet the federal NPS refuses to require the SHPO to review my criticisms or to closely review my data themselves when the SHPO refused to carry out its statutory duty.
Does the National Park Service really want to delist the most important historic battlefield in the coalfields, based on the non-existent objections of dead people?
And if so, has it violated any regulatory procedures?
Is there any national outrage at this Blair Mountain scandal from Cecil Roberts and the United Mines Workers?
Tell Interim Keeper of the National Register, Carol Shull, what you think.