From pick and shovel to mountaintop removal: environmental injustice in the Appalachian coalfields.

Author:Nyden, Paul J.
  1. INTRODUCTION II. COAL MINING AND APPALACHIAN COMMUNITIES: A HISTORY AS DARK AS THE MINES THEMSELVES A. Union Battlefields in Appalachia 1. The Mine Wars: 1900-1932 2. The New Deal and the Rise of the UMWA: 1932-1941 3. The Second World War: 1940-1945 4. Postwar Economic Decline in the Appalachian Coalfields: 1946-1960 B. The Coal Camps After World War II 1. The Coal Bust of the 1960s: New Relationships Between Coal Camp Residents and the Companies 2. The 1970s Coal Boom 3. The Coal Camps: 1980 to Present III. REGULATION OF THE ADVERSE IMPACTS OF COAL MINING A. Historical Overview of the Pre-SMCRA Period B. SMCRA 's Cooperative Federalism Approach to Regulation C. Coal Industry and State Opposition to Implementation, Administration, and Enforcement of SMCRA IV. "ALMOST LEVEL, WEST VIRGINIA": MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL STRIP MINING A. Description of Mountaintop Removal Mining Methods B. SMCRA's Strict Limits on Mountaintop Removal Mining C. Media Expose of Mountaintop Removal Impacts 1. State Mountaintop Removal Permitting Receives Scrutiny 2. State Mountaintop Removal Permitting Decisions Questioned by Environmental Protection Agency 3. Coal industry's Initial Response to Media Investigations of Mountaintop Removal D. Lawlessness: Regulators Ignore SMCRA's "Approximate Original Contours" Mandate 1. The Response of Industry and Regulators to the Revelation that AOC Requirements Had Been Ignored for Two Decades 2. A Promise Broken: Systemic Waiver of Mountaintop Removal Requirements Negate SMCRA's Economic Development Goal a. Newspaper Investigation Discloses Agency Misfeasance b. The Response of Industry and Regulators to the Lack of Economic Development E. Judicial Review: Coalfield Residents Turn to the Courts V. COALFIELD ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE TAKES A NEW FORM A. Paradox in the Coalfields: Coal Production Booms While New Mining Technology Alters the Environment and the Economy Stagnates B. Targeting Coalfield Communities for Destruction C Mountaintop Removal at Blair Mountain: A Case Study of Environmental Injustice in the Coalfields 1. The Dal-Tex Mountaintop Removal Complex and Neighboring Communities 2. Mountaintop Removal Mining Impacts Stir Community Resistance 3. National Attention Is Drawn to Mountaintop Removal Mining at Blair Mountain 4. Facts Emerge About the Coal Company's Plan for "Working with the Community to Minimize Its Temporary Presence There" When Citizen's Seek Relief in Court 5. A Plan for "Working with the Community" Is Developed at the Beginning 6. Option to Purchase Agreements 7. Bogus Dust Monitoring Program VI. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    Travelers entering Williamson, the county seat of Mingo County, West Virginia, pass a faded roadsign that reads: "Welcome to the Billion Dollar Coalfields." The irony of the greeting is hard to escape. Driving into the town which lies in the heart of central Appalachia's coal-producing region, one sees boarded-up stores and vacant and dilapidated buildings. Discouraging economic data and high unemployment in Mingo and other coal counties of southern West Virginia confirm what the eye sees: The billions of dollars of coal reserves mined from the region have only marginally benefited local people. After a century of mining in the "billion dollar coalfields," local communities lack funds to upgrade aging schools; tens of thousands live below the federal "poverty line"; and public services such as fire, police, sewage treatment, and libraries struggle to survive on "bare-bones" budgets.

    While the economic stagnation of coalfield communities continues, highly efficient coal mines have revolutionized coal mining in Appalachia. Coal production largely from giant "mountaintop removal" (1) strip mines and highly mechanized underground "longwall" (2) mines approaches record levels. How does one account for the pervasive dismal economic condition in a region which could aptly be called the "Saudi Arabia of coal"?

    The answer lies in an understanding of the various forces that have shaped the history of the region. For better or worse, those forces--the coal industry and those who directly profit from mining, state and local politicians, and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)--led the coalfields to its present condition. Those same players continue to exert enormous influence, which promises to extend the economic status quo. The paucity of attention given by historians and legal scholars to the legal regime that provided the framework for economic development in the "billion dollar coalfields" provided the impetus for this Essay. The hope is that the following will initiate a scholarly discussion of environmental, economic, and social justice in a region that for a century has given much more to the nation than its citizens have received in return.

    This Essay begins in Section II with a presentation of the historical context in which today's continuing environmental injustice in the coalfields developed. Next, the Essay turns in Section III to a brief discussion of the emergence of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), (3) describing its theoretical promise to protect the coalfield communities, and setting the stage for the breaking of that promise in application. Section IV presents a description of the lawlessness in southern West Virginia with regard to the application of SMCRA to mountaintop removal. Section V, truly the heart of the Essay, describes the coal companies' calculated efforts to remove not only mountain tops, but whole communities. Finally, the Essay concludes that regulatory failures and corporate plans to maximize profits by eliminating coalfield communities have combined to continue the historic deprivation of environmental, economic, and social justice long experienced by coalfield citizens.


    Historian Ronald Eller describes the solitude of the mountains of southern Appalachia in the last decade of the nineteenth century:

    Great forests of oak, ash, and poplar, covered the hillsides with a rich blanket of deep hues, and clear, sparkling streams rushed along the valley floors. No railroad had yet penetrated the hollows. The mountain people lived in small settlements scattered here and there in the valleys and coves. Life on the whole was simple, quiet, and devoted chiefly to agricultural pursuits. (4) Thirty years later a "new industrial order" had arisen in Appalachia. (5) People of the region left their farms, moving to communities with names like Blair, Sharples, Five Block, and Monclo--people there call them "company towns" or "coal camps." (6) Countless similar small coal camps were built during the early decades of the twentieth century by coal operators to house families of men who worked in nearby underground mines. (7)

    Professor Eller describes in graphic detail the transformation of Appalachian communities that had occurred by 1920:

    [E]vidence of change was to be found on every hand. Coal-mining village after coal-mining village dotted the hollows along every creek and stream. The weathered houses of those who worked in the mines lined the creeks and steep slopes, and the black holes themselves gaped from the hillsides like great open wounds. Mine tipples, headhouses, and other buildings straddled the slopes of the mountains. Railroads sent their tracks in all directions, and long lines of coal cars sat on the sidings and disappeared around the curves of the hills. (8) Professor Eller also describes how coal mining altered the Appalachian landscape:

    The once majestic earth was scarred and ugly, and the streams ran brown with garbage and acid runoff from the mines. A black dust covered everything. Huge mounds of coal and "gob" piles of discarded mine waste lay about. The peaceful quiet of three decades before had been replaced by a cacophony of voices and industrial sounds. (9) "Civilization'" writes Eller, "had come into the mountains and had caught up the mountain people in the wellspring of progress." (10)

    The coal camp symbolized this new Appalachian industrial order. (11) Life and work in the coal camps in the early decades of the twentieth century were violent, oppressive, and exploitive. (12) The company town lay at the heart of an authoritative system. (13) Historian David Alan Corbin observed: Ownership of the land and resources gave coal companies enormous social control over the miners. "You didn't even own your own soul in those damnable places," recalled one elderly miner. "The company owned everything, the houses, the schools, churches, the stores--everything."

    The coal company town was a complete system. In addition to owning and controlling all of the institutions in the town, coal company rule in southern West Virginia included the company doctor who delivered the babies, the mines in which children went to work, and the cemeteries where they were eventually buried.

    It was a complete and ruthless rule. (14) Among the insults stemming from King Coal's tyranny were the environmental conditions in the coal camps. As the coal companies owned the towns, they were responsible for the existence--or lack thereof--of public utilities such as sewer systems. (15) However, only two percent of coal towns possessed such a system; the vast majority of the towns simply dumped their waste into nearby creeks. (16) The combination of this discharge of raw sewage with acid mine runoff completely eliminated all animal life in many streams. (17) The impact of water pollution on human health was also evident. Hot summers caused the polluted waters to emit an unbearable stench, and diseases such as typhoid ran rampant among the children of the coal camps. (18) The coal companies' response to the situation then is much the same as it is now: They "argu[ed] that coal could not be mined economically if they concerned themselves with ecology." (19)

    1. Union Battlefields in Appalachia

      1. The Mine Wars: 1900-1932


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