The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 27, 2010

What’s in a name? ‘Mountaintop removal’ vs. ‘mountaintop development’

Coal operators, environmentalists ponder rebranding

BECKLEY — Coal operators and environmentalists have been pondering the value of a name since the revelation that the coal industry may push for “rebranding” surface mining as “mountaintop development” instead of “mountaintop removal.”

The process of blasting the top of a mountain to obtain its underground coal reserves instead of digging a mine has been a much easier target for environmentalists since it has become known as mountaintop removal. However, coal industry executives say the term “mountaintop development” would paint a more accurate picture of the practice.

“In my mind, mountaintop ‘removal’ implies the site is mined and then left barren, lifeless and flattened. This couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association.

He points to the mining permit requirement that forces miners to restore the mines to their approximate original contour or to configure the land for an “alternate use.”

Restoring the land occurs in about 90 percent to 95 percent of former surface mines, Hamilton said.

“We rebuild the mountain peak, resculpting it to approximately as close as possible to the original premining topography of the land, then we reseed it with grasses and trees,” Hamilton said. “We also rebuild the drainage channels, putting in sediment and erosion-control structures to prevent potential downstream impacts.”

One example of land that was developed for alternative use, Hamilton said, is a 900-acre plot in Mingo County donated for use as a regional airport. Cooperation of local officials, he said, has allowed coal companies to be a part of community development, postmining.

“Mingo County is doing some marvelous things through their Mingo County Redevelopment Authority,” Hamilton said. “This organization is partnering with the coal industry to include surface mining in its county master land use plan and to enlist the coal industry as an active partner in the process of building a new, diversified, sustainable economy for the region. This should be the model for the entire state, and we believe it is becoming so.”

He said across West Virginia, the benefits of redeveloped surface mine lands are apparent.

“Every day, you see news of this or that site, often it goes unnoticed that it was a former mine site, but the reality is that we have many former surface mine sites around the state already being used for economic development. The FBI Center in Bridgeport, with 3,000 jobs, spun off an entire technology corridor in Fairmont and Clarksburg,” Hamilton said. “In Wheeling, there is the Cabela’s Shopping Center and basically 80 percent of the town of Weirton is on former surface mine lands, including the city hospital.”

Hamilton said West Virginia’s natural contours are not necessarily the best for land development, and the cost of reshaping that land for development makes many potential sites cost-prohibitive.

“Southern West Virginia, in fact most of West Virginia, can be characterized like this: a valley floor between 100 feet and a half-mile wide, with a road, a river and a railroad running through it,” Hamilton explained. “On either side of the valley are mountains with slopes approaching 60 degrees. The valley floor is mostly taken up by the road, river (or stream) and railroad, and what little land remains is usually on the 20-year floodplain. Clearly, there is little readily developable land available for economic development or community development, recreational development or housing.”

The only solution, Hamilton points out, is build something on the floodplain and endangering the structure, carving a notch in the mountainside or paying for the access, utilities and site preparation to build directly on the mountaintop.

Coal operators can become a valuable partner in developing land for use, and could take the burden to do so off the taxpayer, Hamilton said. 

“Frankly, I see a very symbiotic relationship — bringing together the coal industry, which is willing to move the earth to get at the resource it needs, and the economic/community development team that needs the site prepared for downstream development,” Hamilton said. “Would I like to see more done with these sites? Absolutely, but the coal industry is responsible to its stockholders to mine coal. We can be an incredible resource in the effort to build a new, sustainable economy for our region, but we cannot lead that effort.”

According to a West Virginia Public Broadcasting story, the term “mountaintop development” caught the eye of West Virginia coal industry executives when Tyler Phipps, a junior at the University of Kentucky, submitted a letter to the school’s newspaper in which he suggested the term as a more accurate description of the mining practice.

However, Vivian Stockman, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that a flyover of the southern West Virginia coalfields suggests little development on former surface mine sites.

“If they’re hoping to, you know, create shopping malls on some of these, I don’t know where they’re going to get all the shoppers,” she said. “All the communities around these areas have been driven away.”

She added that the notion that West Virginia needs more flat land is a myth.

“Back in 2002 we had some volunteers create some maps for us,” she said. “There were just massive amounts of land that are not, in any way, shape or form, developed.”

Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that about 1.2 million acres and about 500 mountains were flattened by surface mining in central Appalachia. An aerial imagery analysis by NRDC found that about 90 percent of mountaintop removal sites were not converted to economic uses. Only about 4 percent of West Virginia and Kentucky mountaintops had been redeveloped, NRDC found.

“We watch our Appalachian communities being destroyed every day with the false promise of reclamation,” Lorelei Scarbro, with Coal River Mountain Watch, told NRDC.  “We, the citizens living at ground zero, are losing our way of life and our history with every mountain they take. I am heartbroken to think what my grandchildren will have left when they grow up if we don’t stop this rogue mining.”

While many cite grim imagery in the southern coalfields, Hamilton says surface mining is not as prevalent as a lot of numbers would suggest on first glance.

“I love mountains as well,” Hamilton said. “And I would point out that only 1 percent of the surface area of our state has been touched by surface mining. Some opponents of coal are prone to exaggeration...”

Hamilton acknowledges that not every site is located in an area where population is dense enough to sustain long-term development. However, there are some valuable uses for the land, he said.

 “Is it feasible to expect Toyota or Ford to build an auto plant on top of every mountain in southern West Virginia? Can we put an industrial park on each one and expect it to thrive? Of course not,” Hamilton said. “No one is suggesting that.”

He said he would suggest that the sites be developed into things like recreational facilities such as the YMCA Soccer Complex in Beckley or in Morgantown at Mylan Park. He said homes and communities could be built outside floodplains to provide safe, modern housing, schools and hospitals, shopping centers, airports and industrial parks.

A survey of the West Virginia Department of Commerce found that 13,000 jobs were created on 43 former surface mining sites in 12 counties.

“With some areas of our state having little flat land for development, the use of surface-mined lands has been critically important to providing land for new industry and facilities for use by the general public,” Division of Energy Director Jeff Herholdt said. “In addition to the flat land, many projects are able to take advantage of infrastructure, roads, and electric service used during coal mining.”

The release pointed to the FBI Complex, Weirton Medical Center and the home of the new National Boy Scout Jamboree in Fayette County as successful post-mining land development.

Ken Ward, the author of the Charleston Gazette blog “Coal Tattoo,” points out a few problems with the report.

Ward wrote that about 42 percent of the jobs are seasonal, part-time, or temporary construction work. Two-thirds of the sites are outside southern West Virginia, and the FBI Center accounts for about a third of the jobs touted in the release.

“And some of these sites apparently involved little coal mining at all — only removal of coal that was ‘incidental’ to the development and did not require a mining permit,” Ward wrote. “Others were mined and fully reclaimed, and development projects came much later and independently of the mining.”

Further, Ward writes, much of the information on the past of these sites is not well-documented by the Commerce Department.

“To be clear about this, post-mining development of these sites isn’t supposed to be something that happens much later than mining,” Ward wrote. “It’s not supposed to be something that a bunch of local folks come up with long after the mining operation is closed. Mine operators are not supposed to be able to just flatten the land, and hope somebody comes and builds a factory or a mall someday.”

Hamilton said surface mining is often pictured in black-and-white, but the reality is much more complex.

“Look, again, let’s go to the math — the coal industry provides 60,000 jobs today at an average salary of $68,500 per year. The industry pays more than $3.4 billion each year in payroll and pumps some $26 billion into the state’s economy. That is no small contribution. It is the very bedrock of our state’s economy.

“About 45 percent of that impact comes from surface mining, and it is important to note that often the existence of a surface mine provides the economic support that allows affiliated underground mines to exist in an area. If you remove the surface mine component, you will likely make some underground mining facilities un-economic to operate.”

Due to early regulation and enforcement standards, Hamilton said, West Virginia is one of the most forested states in the nation. He said the need for greater diversity and development is now in demand and the future of West Virginia depends on development.

“I actually see these sites, with a properly developed mechanism to identify and market them, as one of our most important resources for building this new West Virginia,” Hamilton said. “With proper planning and coordination, I see these sites leading the way in the effort. And I see the coal industry as one of the most important resources our state has — both for today and for the future.”

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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