W.Va. Battlefield Ruled Historic Place, Taking Coal Off Market (1)

By Stephen Lee

A large coal patch with historic resonance for West Virginia miners was declared a historic place, taking some 3,000 acres of coal out of play for mountaintop removal mining.

The decision by the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places wraps up a decade-long legal tussle over Blair Mountain. Up to 100 miners and Army soldiers were killed at the site in a union skirmish in 1921. The Battle of Blair Mountain remains the largest armed labor conflict in U.S. history and has become a cultural touchstone for the union movement.

Arch Coal held two permits at the site, totaling some 1,850 acres. Alpha Natural Resources held a single permit measuring 1,100 acres. The two companies still could perform underground mining at the sites, although their permits would have to be modified, Charles Keeney, vice president of Friends of Blair Mountain, said.

Arch and Alpha also could file a legal challenge. Because courts tend to defer to agency decisions, however, their chances of overturning the decision appear to be slight. Neither Arch nor Alpha immediately returned requests for comment. The decision was signed June 27 and obtained by Bloomberg Environment on June 29.

Blair Mountain was first nominated as a historic site in 2005 by the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer. The National Register in 2009 listed the battlefield as a historic site, sparking litigation from several coal companies. The companies argued that local landowners had objected to the battlefield’s inclusion in the register, and the site was delisted later.

‘A Victory for the Environment’

Even if the site had been left off the register, it isn’t clear whether ground would have been broken at Blair Mountain.

“I doubt any coal companies are interested in mining at Blair, given market conditions,” Aaron Isherwood, managing attorney for the Environmental Law Program at the Sierra Club, told Bloomberg Environment.

Neither Arch nor Alpha’s stock moved in the immediate aftermath of the news, suggesting that the decision hasn’t changed investors’ minds on the companies’ outlooks, Andrew Cosgrove, Bloomberg Intelligence senior industry analyst for metals and mining, told Bloomberg Environment.

“We consider this a victory for the environment and labor history,” Peter Morgan, staff attorney at the Sierra Club, told Bloomberg Environment. “This site has taken on symbolic significance for both the coal industry and opponents of mountaintop removal mining. It’s edifying to see that it will be protected.”

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Environment is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.

Julie Ernstein, acting chief of the National Register, declined to comment. The decision was signed by Joy Beasley, keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, and had been shepherded by former keeper Paul Loether, who resigned his post June 13. Last month Loether told Bloomberg Environment his goal was to wrap up the decision before he left office.

Loether wasn’t a political appointee. He now serves as executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.