By Mica Rosenberg
(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled Tuesday in favor of environmental groups fighting to protect the site of a historic 1920s-era labor battle between miners and companies in West Virginia from being destroyed by modern-day coal mining.
The Sierra Club and a coalition of local historical associations sued the government for removing the Blair Mountain Battlefield in southern West Virginia from the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, a move the group said would open up the area to large-scale surface mining.
The mountain was the scene of a five-day clash in September 1921 between more than 5,000 West Virginia coal miners and around 3,000 men backed by the coal companies, the largest armed labor conflict in the nation's history. President Warren Harding had to send in federal troops to quell the violence.
In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned a lower court's 2012 ruling throwing out the Sierra Club's claim against the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service.
The appeals court found the groups had a right to challenge the government's delisting of the site since their members - including descendants of veterans who fought in the battle - would be harmed if it is altered by mining.
The Department of Justice, which represented the government in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"The site is considered hallowed ground by many folks in the labor movement and folks who are involved in coal mining in West Virginia," said Peter Morgan, a Sierra Club attorney.
Several coal companies own permits to the land but are not currently mining there, the ruling said. The coal companies pushed for the site, which is on privately owned land, to be delisted from the Register because of their interest in one day developing the coal resources there, the opinion said.
"The companies did not act as disinterested bystanders in connection with the Battlefield's nomination for inclusion in the Register," the opinion written by D.C. Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan said.
West Virginia is the country's second-largest coal producer after Wyoming. Environmentalists criticize the industry for using a mining technique they term "mountain-top removal" that requires clear-cutting large swaths of land.
The West Virginia Coal Association, which represents mining interests in the state, wrote a friend of the court brief supporting the government in the case.
"Our overriding concern is a third-party group like the Sierra Club's only interest is putting up another roadblock to mining coal," said Jason Bostic, the association's vice president.
The United Mine Workers of America submitted a friend of the court brief supporting the environmentalists in the case.
The case is Sierra Club, et al. v. Sally Jewell, The U.S. Department Of Interior, et al. in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 12-5383
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Lisa Shumaker)