Last Mountain Standing: Coal River Valley Residents Fight for Wind Farm
A mountaintop removal coal company has begun to demolish the last intact mountain in West Virginia's Coal River Valley. Residents are demanding a wind farm instead.
Coal River Valley resident Julia Sendor explains that Coal River Mountain is "a true commons" for her community: a place that inspires countless stories and where locals have enjoyed hiking, hunting, and gathering ginseng and molly moochers (morel mushrooms) for generations. It’s also a top-rated potential site for the production of wind energy.
But Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy, the fourth largest coal company in the U.S., plans to level Coal River Mountain. The company's plans for Coal River Mountain include the removal of 6,000 acres of mountain and pristine hardwood forest—what the mining industry refers to as “overburden”—and in October, the company began to blast.
The news is hardly unique in a region where, each week, mountaintop removal (MTR) coal companies detonate an amount of explosives equivalent to that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. After being blasted apart, obliterated mountaintops are pushed into neighboring valleys, burying headwater streams and contaminating drinking water with heavy metals. To date, a staggering 500 mountains have been destroyed, and over 2,000 miles of headwater streams have been buried and polluted.
Because coal companies have decimated every other mountain in the area and buried those mountains' headwater streams beneath toxic mining waste, Coal River Mountain is a critical source of clean freshwater in the community.
But neighboring communities are concerned about more than their water supply. Less than 100 yards from the site where earth-shattering explosives are being detonated is Massey's immense earthen Brushy Fork Impoundment—the largest lake of coal sludge in the Western Hemisphere.
This impoundment is constructed of compacted mining waste and slate rock, and the underlying ground is honeycombed by underground mines. It rises 954 feet (the Hoover Dam is 726 feet) and holds a remarkable 8.2 billion gallons of toxic sludge. If the impoundment fails, Massey itself estimates that at least 998 people would lose their lives. Despite this risk, and despite the fact that Brushy Fork has been given a Level C rating, meaning that the "dam has specific problems that could lead to failure," Massey continues to detonate explosives less than a football field away. The force of explosions is so powerful it shakes houses throughout the valley.
Valley Residents Rally for a Wind Farm
Lorelei Scarbro's property borders Coal River Mountain. She was born and raised in West Virginia and her father, grandfather, and husband were all coal miners. She lives in a house her husband built with his own hands, next door to the family cemetery where he is buried. As Massey continues to blast, everything, including her life, is at risk. A lot of people have asked Scarbro, "Why don't you move?" Her response:
"What is home to you? Appalachians have a strong sense of place. A sense of belonging to what surrounds you. It is not the value of the property or the things you are surrounded by. It is the memories you shared with the people you love and the things you experienced there. It is being [so] connected to the land that, if need be, you can survive there just on the land. We don’t want to loose that and we certainly don’t want it stolen from us. We don't live where they mine coal. They mine coal where we live."
Scarbro and others in her community are determined to protect the home they love, and when a wind energy consulting firm found Coal River Mountain to have wind resources at the highest "Class 7" rating, they rallied behind an alternative to mountaintop removal: a 328 megawatt wind farm.
Scarbro and her neighbors formed a group, Coal River Mountain Wind Project and commissioned a study on the long-term economic benefits of wind versus mountaintop removal on Coal River Mountain. The study found that wind would provide the county with $1.7 million in annual revenue indefinitely, while mountaintop removal would provide the county with only $36,000 in annual revenue—and only for 17 years.
Large wind companies have expressed an interest in developing a farm on Coal River Mountain, says Scarbro, but have yet to express public support for fear of jeopardizing opportunities elsewhere in the state.
Future jobs are a serious concern in Coal River Valley. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, only enough “high-quality, thick, bituminous resources remain in coal beds and coal zones [in the Appalachian Basin] to last for the next one to two decades at current production.”
Chuck Nelson was an underground miner for 30 years. He now works for Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch and is quick to point out, "We need jobs here in Appalachia for our miners. This is a mono-economy state, but we have to look at how we'll survive after coal is gone."
A wind farm would provide 80-90 permanent jobs for the community. When parts such as turbines need to be replaced, construction and replacement would create an additional 200-300 jobs. Increased job diversification would bring a new set of skills to the region, where there is a strong sense that working for the coal company is a person's only option.
Some argue that saving the mountain from MTR could actually increase the number of mining jobs in the area. Deep mining, which requires far more workers than the increasingly mechanized process of MTR, would remain possible on Coal River Mountain even if a wind farm is built there. If Coal River Mountain were leveled by MTR, wind farming would not be economically viable on the unstable ground and lowered ridges.
For Scarbro, Nelson, Sendor, and many others in Coal River Valley, protecting the mountain also means protecting their livelihoods and their hopes for the future. If they can stop Massey's blasting, they can also replace coal with an industry that doesn’t pit the income of its workers against the health and well-being of local citizens.
“If we can save our mountain and start producing green jobs and renewable energy, Coal River Mountain will become a symbol of hope, not just for our area in the valley, but for all of Appalachia," says Sendor.
Concerned citizens in Coal River Valley are holding demonstrations and sending petition after petition to their representatives. They even took over the east wing of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. for three hours.
In 2009, the EPA has increased its scrutiny of mountaintop removal—particularly of the practice known as "valley fill," in which earth removed from ridges is deposited in valleys, contaminating the headwaters of streams and rivers. Scarbro says, "We are very thankful for steps the EPA has taken. They have made lot of good first steps this year."
But in Coal River Valley, action hasn’t come quickly enough. "We want anyone with power to intervene, and they better hurry,” says Scarbro. "People are dying as we speak because of ramifications of the coal industry in Coal River Valley. We are thankful, but it's not enough."
Who Will Stop Massey?
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and the state's Department of Environmental Protection have the power to rescind the coal companies’ permits. Alternatively, West Virginia's Public Service Commission could take ownership of the land by exercising its right of eminent domain. However, support from these sources is unlikely. As Nelson puts it, in West Virginia "everyone from the governor to the dogcatcher is in the pocket of the coal industry." For this reason, residents of Coal River Valley are calling upon the White House and the EPA to protect their safety, local ecosystems, and economic future.
Truly, it is all of us who must stop Massey. If we are serious about renewable energy and economic recovery, then we need to move immediately to protect Coal River Mountain and to promote the sustainable vision of the citizens of Coal River Valley. We need to tell the president and our federal agencies to intervene and protect Coal River Mountain and Coal River Valley.
Two bills pending in Congress—the Clean Water Protection Act (HR 1310) in the House and the Appalachia Restoration Act (S 696) in the Senate—would stop Massey and other coal companies from dumping toxic mining waste into our nation's waterways. We need to stand tall with Coal River Mountain, the last mountain overlooking Coal River Valley, and demand that our representatives no longer tolerate an insatiable coal industry that is willing to decimate the cultural and natural heritage of an entire region of our country in pursuit of a finite fossil fuel. Coal River Valley needs an end to the social and environmental injustice of mountaintop removal—and deserves the sustainable jobs that a wind farm would bring to its community.
Jed Grubbs wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jed works with Appalachian Voices, a non-profit organization based in Charlottesville, Virginia that works to stop mountaintop removal. He grew up between the southwestern Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians and the foot of Walden's Ridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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