CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
In the struggle to end mountain top removal coal mining, we don’t often have occasions to celebrate, so the December 18th announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency had vetoed the permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia was reason to pop the champagne corks. After all, this was the largest mountain top removal operation ever reviewed by the EPA, covering an area larger than Pittsburgh. And it seemed to signal a sea change for the way the EPA does business. Up until then the EPA had approved every mine permit put before them since 1972, when the agency was created to enforce the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other laws passed by Congress in the wake of the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Cuyahoga River fire and a slew of other environmental disasters that had captured the nation’s attention during the turbulent 1960s.
Certainly if you were reading the headlines, checking your e-mail, or getting the numerous fundraising appeals from well-meaning environmental groups claiming victory, you would have been right to believe that here was a victory grasped from the jaws of defeat, a testament of the strength of our movement and our ability pressure the government to enforce the laws. It augured the death of mountain top removal.
But there is more to the story.
Last week, Jimmy Weekly called Climate Ground Zero to alert us to the situation. His house sits on the bank of Pigeonroost Creek, just up from the small town of Blair in Logan County, West Virginia. James “Jimmy” Weekly has lived here on the upper reaches of Pigeon Roost Branch for all of his 71 years, his family having moved here in 1734. He was a UMWA member and an underground miner for 15 years. In 1999 Jimmy was the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit brought by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. That case, Bragg v. Robertson, was the first successful citizen lawsuit to stop a proposed mountaintop removal operation. The fill from the proposed mine would bury several miles of Pigeonroost Hollow. The mine, Dal Tex, which is almost the size of Spruce No. 1, has not reopened since Judge Haydon issued the injunction and you can see a plateau above Pigeonroost Creek which is all that remains of a mountain that was once 300 feet higher.
Standing on the banks of Pigeonroost Branch, one is truly “up in the holler’. Steep wooded hillsides yield quickly to rocky ridges that wind and twist, rising into high peaks, giving residents who live here both unobstructed views and the type of solitude usually found only in National Parks or large forest reserves. Pigeonroost Branch runs about six miles from its head down to the Spruce Fork, on down to the Guyan River and from there to the Coal River and on to the Ohio River. But the most striking thing about this place is that it surrounded on three sides by strip mines and the only thing stopping them from burying this final hollow is Jimmy Weekly.
“Back in 1998 Arch Coal offered two million dollars for my holler, but I wouldn’t sell,” Jimmy says. “Everyone else sold out and now I’m the only one left.”
To keep them from blasting even closer to his house, Weekly parks a small travel trailer next to the mine boundary and sleeps in it occasionally. Since blasting cannot occur within three hundred feet of an occupied structure and his house is just a few hundred feet further down the road, the trailer provides a small but important buffer between him and the dynamite, but, Jimmy adds, “Fly rock is always a concern and you still get the dust, which is heavily laden with toxic chemicals and heavy metals.”
Already the upper three miles of the hollow are buried under hundreds of feet of crushed rock and Arch Coal, based in Missouri, has installed two sludge dams above his house. The EPA said it would allow mining to continue on the site, burying nearly a mile of streams in the Seng Camp Creek watershed, because work there had already begun. It is a common coal company tactic to establish facts on the ground that can render any legal challenge moot because the damage cannot be undone.
Jimmy took me on a tour of Pigeonroost Hollow. Just down the road on the north side, next to the railroad tracks, stood a new coal tipple, a tall metallic structure connected into a long motorized conveyor belt that carries coal from the active mine above. It was busy loading a train with over a hundred cars, half of them already filled to the brim with pulverized coal from a processing plant above that we could not see. “They never got a permit for this,” he said, “I have complained, but they never get back to me. They are going forward as if the permit hadn’t been denied. They are moving in a dragline in now in pieces and have already run the power lines for it. They are doing it as fast as they can.”
As Jimmy Weekly reports, work on the Spruce Number One has been underway since last year, and those preparations have actually speeded up since the EPA veto was announced. The only thing they are not doing is dumping the mining spoils into Pigeonroost Branch, which runs through the middle of the Spruce No.1. They are, however, allowed to dump in Seng Creek, just one ridge over from where we are standing. And that is exactly what they are now doing with the EPA’s tacit approval.
Jimmy’s house is also near Blair Mountain, the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, where 15,000 coal miners fed up with their plight marched on the coal companies demanding a union in the largest worker insurrection this country has ever witnessed. The marchers were met by armed security agents, the National Guard and the US Army, which eventually established martial law to disburse the striking miners–but not before two hundred men were killed and many more wounded. While the immediate aftermath was a victory for King Coal, the Battle of Blair Mountain exposed the brutal conditions that the miners lived under and in 1931 led to the United Mine Workers successfully unionizing the coalfields of southwestern West Virginia and winning major concessions from the operators. In recognition of the historical importance of this event, in March of 2009 Blair Mountain was added to the National Register of Historic Places, underscoring its importance as an historical site. Incredibly, it was removed from the register a year later after intense pressure from the coal industry, who exploited a loophole in the law by putting two dead men on the list of objectors. Massey Energy and Arch Coal are now seeking permission to mine a large portion of the battlefield using mountaintop removal mining methods.
For Jimmy Weekly, this is the ultimate insult. “They keep talking about economic incentives and here we have a site of international interest, even the Governor has said it is the most important historical site in West Virginia, but they won’t do anything to develop it, to bring in tourists, to create jobs. And former West Virginia Governor and now US Senator Joe Manchin spent a year and a half to get Blair Mountain off the national historic register. Their answer is to mine it.”
We left Jimmy as the sun was starting to drop below the ridgeline. His story, of course, is one of many. Half of all the people who were born in West Virginia now live outside the state, and coal mining is the principle reason. For many of those who remain, it’s a matter of if you can’t beat them, join them. But the Spruce No. 1 mine will temporarily employ only 350 miners, a small fraction of the people who are trying to eke out a living in this hardscrabble country.
Jimmy explains,”My grandson worked up on the Spruce No 1. That’s how it goes, you have a $9.00 an hour job, but you get married, have a child, and you can’t afford that job anymore so you go up on the mine even if you don’t want to. And after the veto came down last month, they fired him and told him to never go on Arch Coal property again.”
Lawyers working with the Ohio Valley Environmental Council and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment are looking into Jimmy’s complaint to see if he has any legal options to stop the work. With the amount of mountain top removal going on, it can be very difficult to monitor everything the coal companies are doing. Access to the site is usually denied to anyone not working for the company and trespassers are prosecuted. Please contact OVEC and ACEE to see how you can help.
Our addiction to coal has consequences. We all know that. But it is people like Jimmy Weekly and his neighbors who are bearing the brunt of those consequences. Their lives, their future, their communities are being destroyed and they are being poisoned. People are now understandably captivated by the events unfolding in Northern Africa and across the Arab world, where people are clamoring for freedom from oppression. But here in America there is an ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing. Cities and towns established while we were still an English colony are being distroyed and too many people are dying from lung cancer and other diseases. Isn’t it time well past time to stop Mountain Top Removal forever?