Coal River Mountain is one of the last mountains in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley that hasn’t been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. Massey Energy is planning to mine a 10-square-mile area of the mountain, but activists in the area are hoping to intercede with a plan to instead harvest the mountain’s wind potential.
Massey Energy has a number of mountaintop removal (MTR) operations in place in the area around Coal Mountain, but they plan to blast this last untouched reserve. Their plans call for at least 14 valley fills to deposit the debris, which is likely to bury at least six local streams. Residents in the area are hoping to convince state agencies, local landowners, and the coal companies to allow a 440-megawatt wind farm to be built atop the mountain while still allowing Massey Energy to mine beneath the surface, a compromised plan that they hope can start moving the state away from reliance on coal — and protect one of the most endangered mountains in the country.
For years, local activists from Coal River Watch have been fighting against MTR and other harmful coal industry practices. But in 2006 WindLogics and advocates from the group Appalachian Voices conducted a study and found that a wind farm on the mountain could provide enough energy to power 150,000 homes. They’ve now formed a new group, Coal River Wind, and outlined a proposal to build 220 292-feet-tall wind turbines on the mountain, which would provide a sustained tax income for Raleigh County and at least 250 local jobs. There are three wind companies interested in the proposal.
“This is the first alternative ever proposed that has a strong economic component, that has real benefits to it that could be brought to local communities,” said Rory McIlmoil, campaign coordinator for Coal River Wind. “The wind potential would be destroyed if they continue with the strip mining.”
The advocates from Coal River Wind are still open to allowing Massey to mine there as long as it’s at least 300 feet below the surface. They argue that the underground mine would actually create more jobs for local residents than an MTR site, which relies mostly on heavy machinery.
Lorelei Scarbro is one of the community members fighting the proposed MTR site. Like many area residents, she already knows well the impacts of mountaintop removal. Residents have dealt with flooding, contaminated wells, and the destruction of their homes and surrounding landscape due to MTR. Surface mining has already destroyed more than 500,000 acres in West Virginia.
“My father was a coal miner. My grandfather was a coal miner. I have two brothers that are coal miners, my son-in-law is a coal miner,” says Scarbro, a life-long West Virginian and probably not someone you’d expect to be an outspoken opponent of coal. But Scarbro says, “I believe that the time for coal has come and gone, and I think we’re destroying our earth with fossil fuels. That’s the reason that we’re in the climate crisis that we’re in. I believe that we need to start transitioning.”
“It’s like living in a war zone when you have to sit in you home, you hear the blasting, and you breathe in the coal dust and you breathe in the rock dust,” says Scarbro. “To live with your house shaking every day, the foundation cracking, the windows rattling, it is really like living in a war zone.”
Scarbro fears that the home in Rock Creek that her husband, a union coal miner, built 35 years ago and the surrounding 10-acre plot of land will be at risk if the proposed strip mine goes through. “My husband is buried in the family cemetery next door, and there are many of us like that who should not have to be driven from our homes and leave our relatives in the cemetery and have to walk away, for all of that to be destroyed,” said Scarbro. “It’s a very peaceful, serene place. If mountaintop removal is allowed to continue, than all of that is at risk.”
MTR has become a more common operation since 2003, when the Bush administration weakened sections of the Clean Water Act to allow waste debris to be dumped in streams or “valley fills.” Currently, Massey has already leased the land from three large land-holding companies and has secured two of the four permits needed to move forward with the plan.
But they must secure a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in order to deposit the waste rock from blasts into these valley fills, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy have filed suit to block the creation of these sedimentation ponds. In June 2007, U.S. 2nd district Judge Robert C. Chambers ruled that the practice is a violation of the Clean Water Act. The coal industry appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which is slated to render an opinion on Sept. 23.
If the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals abides by the previous ruling, Coal River Wind advocates might get what they’re asking for. But if the court rules in the coal companies’ favor, strip mining on Coal River Mountain could begin as early as 2009. They’re also exploring the possibility of working out a deal with Massey, the landowners, and the state in order to enact their plan even if the permits go through, in which they might have to compensate Massey for any profits lost by not strip mining.
In an area where the loss of jobs in the coal industry has already taken a severe toll on the local economy, Scarbro says some residents are resistant to their plan. “A lot of these people have a strong sense of hopelessness,” says Scarbro, noting that because the state’s economy is based almost solely on coal, residents react negatively to the idea of losing any more coal-mining jobs. “It’s tough to try to convince them that this is a definite possibility, that this could happen.”
There’s also a lack of political will at the state level to support anything other than coal, says Scarbro.
“Coal mining is what the politicians have based the economy on in the state of West Virginia, and they haven’t been transitioning to renewables or anything else in order to finance the state,” said Scarbro. “In the state of West Virginia, coal is king and the politicians have shut out all other alternatives.”
Scarbro said she and other local advocates will be working over the next weeks to organize residents against the proposed mine. They hope to “create an atmosphere where Coal River Mountain becomes a publicly undesirable site for mountaintop removal,” said Scarbro. “We need to raise awareness that there is a better alternative, and they don’t have to destroy mountains in order to create energy.”
Here’s a video that iLoveMountains.org put together on Scarbro and the Coal River Wind project: