Coal Tattoo

Reclaiming and developing the mountains

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Courtesy photo/Developer Tom Loehr plans to open a wood-fired power plant on an abandoned Mingo County surface mine in 2011.

I’m usually a little wary when I hear that my buddy Tom Loehr is involved in an economic development project … my skepticism goes back to a long way, though, to when Loehr thought that putting a big coal-fired power plant near downtown Morgantown was a good idea.

So it was interesting to read last week  that Loehr is working with the good folks at the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority to bring a new wood waste-fired power plant on an old mountaintop removal site.

Mike Whitt, executive director of the development authority, said:

This is exciting news. We’ve been working on alternative energy projects, and hopefully, this one will come to fruition.

It’s an alternative green energy project, and that’s the hot thing right now. It’s diversifying the economy, and that’s what’s needed in the coalfields.

Loehr added, according to Gazette business editor Eric Eyre’s story:

We’re looking at what’s going to happen over the next 20 years, not the next month or two. Renewable energy is more valuable today than it’s ever been.

There’s no reason we should not be the leader in clean energy technology as we move ahead.  We have the ability to do it, so why not?

This is exactly the kind of project that coal industry supporters point to in their defense of mountaintop removal, arguing that without the flattened land left behind after mining, such developments aren’t possible.

As the FACES of Coal campaign says on its Web site:

Before mining even begins, companies must submit – and both the government and landowner must approve – a comprehensive land restoration and reclamation plan.  Some areas are reforested, others commercially developed to improve the quality of life for residents.

Unfortunately, coal supporters generally overstate the success of such projects and the compliance by the industry with these post-mining development requirements. FACES of Coal, for example, says:

Mining operations have created much needed level land throughout Appalachia.  Today communities benefit from commercial developments such as shopping malls, airports and recreational facilities, leading to a higher quality of life and greater economic diversity and prosperity in the region.

But on Sunday, the Lexington Herald-Leader took a look at such claims in Kentucky. They found:

… Development was planned for less than 3 percent of the roughly half-million acres of land covered by surface-mining permits in Kentucky over the last decade  … That amounts to less than 14,000 acres scheduled to be reclaimed for commercial, residential, industrial or recreational development …

As Tom FitzGerald, head of the Kentucky Resources Council, told the Herald-Leader’s Bill Estep and Linda Johnson:

Precious little of it is actually put to a beneficial use.

The Herald-Leader story reported some positive steps:

Some flat land left after mining in the region’s steep hills and narrow valleys has been used for development — including golf courses, prisons, housing and hospitals. Supporters of the coal industry say that flat land is a boost for the region’s economy.

In and around Hazard, subdivisions and retail stores, restaurants and hotels, the industrial park, the airport, the large regional hospital, a National Guard armory and even a nursing home for veterans sit on reclaimed mined areas.

But overall:

… Coal companies obtained permits calling for development on just 2.8 percent of the 496,014 acres that listed a post-mining land use in permits issued since November 1999.

The Herald-Leader’s findings are similar to those reported a decade ago when the Gazette published my original “Mining the Mountains” series:

Across the Southern West Virginia coalfields, mountaintop removal mining is turning tens of thousands of acres of rugged hills and hollows – nobody knows how many – into flat pastures and rolling hayfields.

A new coal industry advertising campaign declares that mine operators who lop off mountaintops are building “West Virginia’s Own Field of Dreams.”

“Like the Iowa farmer in the movie, ‘Field of Dreams,’ if we build the sites, they will come,” the industry ads say. “And when they come, they will bring with them better jobs, housing, schools, recreation facilities, and a better life for all West Virginians.”

A continuing Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation has found that these predictions have not come true and that, without major regulatory changes, they aren’t likely to come true anytime soon.

Coal industry backers point to a few small mountaintop removal jobs that were turned into homes for the new state prison, a high school and an air strip.

But most coal companies plan to leave giant mountaintop removal mines as flattened-out fields, according to a three-month review of state Division of Environmental Protection mining permits.

The Herald-Leader findings also match those of the federal government’s Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal.

Here in West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin talks a lot about his desire to get development on the land flattened by mountaintop removal. As I’ve written before, though, his new program to do that has some serious loopholes.

It’s important to remember that projects like the new wood-burning plant proposed by Tom Loehr are not being put together by coal companies as part of their original mining permit applications — the way the law intended to them to be. Instead, they’re being put together long, long after mining has ended by developers like Loehr, with much help from local leaders like Mike Whitt.

There are thousands of acres of flattened mine sites across Appalachia that have never been developed … so does it make sense to argue for flattening more of them, or to focus efforts on creating jobs on those that have already been mined?

The Obama administration has gotten itself deeply into the mountaintop removal mining issue, promising “unprecedented steps” to reduce the environmental impacts. That same press release also promised:

The Federal agencies will also work in coordination with appropriate regional, state, and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities. This interagency effort will have a special focus on stimulating clean enterprise and green jobs development, encouraging better coordination among existing federal efforts, and supporting innovative new ideas and initiatives.

On possible avenue for this sort of initiative would be to beef up U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s policing of post-mining development plans by mining companies. But so far, OSMRE has been only a minor player in Obama’s mountaintop removal strategy. Its one significant step so far was tossed out by a federal judge. And Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hasn’t been able to get his pick to run OSMRE confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

And, of course, the Obama administration allowed a few right-wing commentators to run off his “green jobs” adviser, Van Jones.  So who is working on this issue now? What is Obama’s plan for green jobs for the coalfields? Does he really have one? Do any of our elected officials? Sen. Byrd? Congressman Rahall? Gov. Manchin?