Coal Tattoo


Just in from Harvard Ayers at Appalachian State University:

The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places has approved the long-sought nomination of Blair Mountain, site of the historic coal-mining labor battle in Logan County, W.Va., to the National Register.

We’ve got the story on the Gazette’s Web site,  and in our print edition tomorrow.

My own history on this story goes back to 1989, when I interned at the Gazette and for some reason my crazy editors put me covering the United Mine Workers’ strike against Pittston Coal.  Part of that assignment allowed me to walk most of the way from Logan to Marmet, in a reverse re-creation of the Blair Mountain March cooked up by then-UMW political director Mike Burdiss. Along the way, I was there one rainy night in a crowded Army tent when then-House Speaker Chuck Chambers and others dedicated the state historical marker at Blair Mountain.

And I remember the complicated battle, documented by Paul Nyden, between the UMW, environmental groups and Massey Energy over Massey’s plans in the early 1990s to strip mine in the area. That ended in some sort of a settlement that proposed a public park. But I must confess I never really understood the settlement or what it achieved.

This story broke late in the day today, and I haven’t been able to reach everyone I would have liked to talk to about it.

But, the National Park Services has this collection of Frequentlyl Asked Questions about historic designations, and yes (my editor already asked) the person who technically makes this designation is a NPS official called “the Keeper.”

And, there’s more background available from the Sierra Club, the W.Va. Division of Culture and History, and of course, the Friends of Blair Mountain. In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Blair Mountain one of America’s 11 most endangered historic spots.

I did manage to reach Kenny King, a local Blair Mountain history buff (expert, really), who was still trying to learn more about exactly what action the Keeper had taken.

“It’s about time something like this happened,” King told me, adding that he was disappointed no local political leaders had joined in the push for Blair Mountain’s designation. “We sort of had to go over their heads,” King said.

Here’s a map that shows the area apparently covered by the designation:


Now, more recent coalfield battles also focused around Blair. A decade ago, the area was ground zero for the fight over mountaintop removal, when U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked Arch Coal Inc. from receiving the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history. Arch laid off more than 300 UMW members at the site, saying it had run out of coal on existing permits. The company made up the production through its non-union operations. Later, the Corps of Engineers approved a revised version of the permit, but only after requiring a lengthy Environmental Impact Statement on the mining proposal.

Jeff Biggers at The Huffington Post describes this as a victory where “one peak was most likely saved today.”  I’m not sure he’s right, but I can’t figure out if he’s overstating or understating the case. First of all, the designation applies to a 10-mile stretch of ridges, not just one peak. But more importantly, I’m not sure that this designation alone is anywhere near enough to stop any mountaintop removal mining. National Register listing, according to the National Park Service, “places no obligations on private property owners. There are no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition of private property.”

One mountaintop removal permit in this area was among the four that were blocked by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in the ruling overturned last month by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  But another permit in that area was also one of the ones that EPA has recently raised concerns about.

Jeff, though, also points out a nice video from Sasha Waters’ documentary, Razing Appalachia, that deals with both aspects of the Blair history.