Salena Zito

COAL RIVER MOUNTAIN, W.Va. – This mountain in southern West Virginia, right in the middle of Appalachia’s spine, is fast becoming someone’s Waterloo.

It’s too soon to tell who will be the loser: the coal industry, the environmentalists or the people who call this region home.

Nearly 500 mountaintops in Appalachia have been destroyed (or used for commerce, depending on your perspective) by mountaintop-removal mining.

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MRM, as it is known, is cheaper and faster than underground mining. It involves blasting the top of a mountain to remove its layers of coal.

The Coalition for Mountaintop Mining, an advocacy group under the West Virginia Coal Association, says the practice accounts for 42 percent of local coal in West Virginia, which is second only to Wyoming in coal production.

The group says that MRM accounts for 7,000 “high-wage” direct jobs and 30,000 indirect jobs in the state, and that entire communities depend on it.

Yet this mountain has become the center of an environmental debate, largely due to the tenacity of activists from Coal River Mountain Watch, a mixture of coal-mining families and environmentalists.

They favor an alternative process: Mine the coal underground (far less intrusive, but far more costly to coal companies) and build a wind farm on the mountain ridges (preserving their majestic beauty, as well as everything downstream from strip-mining outflows).

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, says he supports development of alternative energy sources. Once the economic downturn ends, he explains, we’ll need all the power we can generate.

“It doesn't matter, the source,” he says. “We fully support efforts to develop wind, solar, hydrogen, nuclear and all energy sources that are safe, dependable and efficient.”

His alter-ego on the preservation/alternative-energy side of West Virginia's mountains, Rory McIlmoil, says the significance of the anti-MRM campaign “can’t be understated.”

His passion could be confused with a quixotic quest, but it would be dangerous to dismiss him that way.

McIlmoil has gone from being an outside do-gooder to a man worthy of a mountain pedigree in less than two years. His first community meeting on behalf of Coal River Mountain Watch drew 10 people. “I thought, regrettably, that I was the smart guy that was going to save Coal River Mountain and that they needed me,” he recalls.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.