The Battle For Coal River Mountain

Salena Zito

11/15/2009 12:01:00 AM - 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.

McIlmoil, who left the watch group in May to consult for Downstream Strategies, admits his illusions evaporated when he realized that people in the coalfields knew a lot more about life and fighting than he ever would.

“The way I was acting initially was similar to the same messed-up attitudes others had been taking toward Appalachians for decades,” McIlmoil said.

He said soon realized that the people living in the coalfields knew a lot more about life and fighting than he had ever thought he could, so he settled into a role of facilitator rather than leader.

The coal industry has had both benevolent and horrific effects on West Virginia. It’s been the savior of a small, poor state, and also has caused many of the catastrophes to workers, to the environment, and to the atmosphere.

Coal also has many of the state’s politicians in its pocket. We know from other places that reliance on a single extractive industry is sure to cause both corruption and continued underdevelopment and lack of economic diversification.

Investment in green energy technologies remains essential but vast windmill farms need flat land which West Virginia doesn’t have a lot of. They also are no aesthetic joy, and they are less reliable than carbon-based fuels largely because the wind is a sometime thing.

So, there is no utopia.

Everybody currently benefiting from the status quo likes it, including politicians and their frequent benefactors, the coal companies. They fear change and unpredictability. The more insular the place, the more the fear of the unknown exists. Coal companies have kind of owned the state historically, but so has the United Mine Workers.

No one wants to lose their present jobs in a state where economic insecurity and poverty are so pervasive and where the labor force is relatively educationally disadvantaged.

Yet no one wants to live under the rubble, pollution and health concerns of MRM either.

The future is soft energy, the faster we move on it and invest in it, the better, and some of the carbon-based energy industries are themselves diversifying.

But change is hard, and transitioning is difficult, and that is what we are going through now. When an industry is as dominant as coal is in West Virginia and has so many politicians, putting it delicately, sympathetic to it, it is hard to do the far-sighted thing.

West Virginia in a microcosm is all of us.

And it is her people as well as every Appalachian -- often dismissed as hillbillies, rednecks or Mountain folk -- that have been, since the very beginning of our country, at the frontline of every important battle in our history books.