Reclaiming and developing the mountains

October 19, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


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?

21 Responses to “Reclaiming and developing the mountains”

  1. […] Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Reclaiming and developing the mountains – view page – cached Courtesy photo/Developer Tom Loehr plans to open a wood-fired power plant on an abandoned Mingo County surface mine in 2011. — From the page […]

  2. A-mouse says:

    well, we know where Governor Manchin stands. Check out the exchange around minute 2:45:

    think we’ll see any real push for non-extractive energy production from Manchin anytime soon?

  3. JAWVMM says:

    You certainly were optimistic back then. Would that they were even “flat pastures and rolling hayfields.” Maybe Ag Extension could find a crop – for biofuel? – that would grow with little or no topsoil? Or bring in herds of goats? Low-carbon meat. I just read an article on “zero-waste” recycling that bemoaned the difficulty of universal composting. Maybe we could contract to accept organic waste and pile it on all those flat acres? The waste-wood plant is a start, but what if we had a lot of entrepreneurs brainstorming lots of small-scale, low-capital projects – real growth is based on lots of relatively low-paying jobs.

  4. Clem Guttata says:

    A-mouse – Thanks for sharing that video. My comments in response got long enough to be a post:

  5. I remember seeing a few sorry houses built at the edge of the Wendell Ford Airport near Hazard, KY. at a “reclaimed MTR site. Pathetic looking sited on hard pan dirt with no bushes or trees.
    I suggest the governor and legislators spend their next vacations on a reclaimed MTR site.
    Mountaintop removal is a monument to folly. Someday, maybe, a future generation will declare this whole “by then” devastated and desolate area the “Folly National Park,” and object lesson akin to Hiroshima Park in Japan.

  6. Scott 14 says:

    If companys want to flatten their land then let them. Most people forget that its their land not yours. They bought the land and invested the money to flatten it. People see the mountain that was there when they were kids and think they own it. YOU DONT a coal company owns it. Its theirs.

  7. rhmooney3 says:

    Hey, what about some Elk?

    October 19, 2009
    Elk hunt as simple as 1, 2, 3
    First state harvest in nearly 150 years
    Each of five permit holders are allowed one bull elk apiece. In addition to Flynn, the others to harvest elk Monday were Parrotsville’s Craig Gardner and Oak Ridge’s Ronald Woodward.

    Permit holders Jeffrey Moses, of Cleveland and Tami Miller, whose husband purchased her permit on eBay for $17,700, had not come in with their elk.

    The hunt is taking place on the Royal Blue Unit of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, a 40,000-acre tract located approximately 20 miles from the Hatfield Knob elk viewing tower. With an estimated 300, Tennessee’s elk herd over the last decade has grown to where it can sustain carefully managed hunting pressure, biologists say.

    All three elk brought in had impressive racks, and field dressed between 520 and 750 pounds. The animals had to be weighed on a set of coal-mining scales located at a tipple near Royal Blue.

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Scott 14,

    Your private property rights argument doesn’t hold water … The coal industry challenged SMCRA in court after it was passed, and among the arguments was that it violated private property rights. Those court challenges were tossed out. So the provisions of SMCRA that require a company to either put it back to AOC or develop it stand. They just aren’t enforced.


  9. Matt Wasson says:

    So let’s get this straight. The three pillars of the coal industry’s arguments in support of mountaintop removal coal are: 1.) that it creates jobs; 2.) that it creates flat land needed for economic development; and 3.) that we need the coal for cheap electricity. Let’s look a little closer:

    1.) While it’s clear that people have had jobs in mountaintop removal mining over the last 30 years, the economy of Central Appalachia has been among the poorest performers in the country over that period, while other Appalachian counties have seen much stronger growth. Moreover, MTR creates fewer jobs than underground mining. If you’re destroying more jobs than you’re creating, as the evidence suggests, then you can’t say you’re creating jobs.

    2.) Between the Lexington H-L and the Charleston Gazette’s reporting, we can dispense with “we need flat land” argument once and for all – ’bout time, too.

    3.) Appalachian coal supplies 14% of US electricity now compared to 28% in 1984, and and has followed a straight downward trajectory over that period that shows no signs of ending. Appalachian coal also has the highest delivered cost per Btu (by far) of any coal region. Plus, a recent report by Synapse Energy commissioned by the Sierra Club confirmed what a Hill & Associates study said a decade ago: that consumers of mountaintop removal coal could shift to other sources of coal and electricity at little if any cost to consumers.

    No wonder the industry is relying on intimidation and shouting down critics, as happened at last week’s NWP21 hearings – they don’t have any valid arguments left.

  10. Casey says:

    The poor economic performance is largely due with the fact that WV is ranked as the WORST state in the union to do business (per Forbes). This coupled with the expensive cost for infrastructure due to the terrain, is quite a hurdle.

    Mining in some cases is able to reduce this infrastructure expense.

    The U.S. market is very efficient and investors will capitalize on any economic opportunity present. So shifts will occur naturally.

    I don’t think it is the coal industry per se doing the shouting but numerous stakeholders that fear for their jobs and the future of their families. Their fear is real. They do not want to move out-of-state, away from family, to secure work.

  11. Clem Guttata says:

    Casey — Please explain how the Forbes ranking matters when comparing different counties in West Virginia.

    The economy of counties in West Virginia with coal mining have performed worse than counties in West Virginia without coal mining.

    If coal mining was creating valuable infrastructure it would be the other way around.

  12. Matt Wasson says:


    It’s not West Virginia as a whole that has fared so poorly compared to neighboring counties over the past 30 years according to ARC reports, but specifically the Central Appalachian counties where mountaintop removal occurs (same is true for eastern KY, East TN and SW VA). That includes only the southern WV counties from Nicholas over to Wayne and on down to McDowell, so the argument about WV being a bad state to do business doesn’t hold.

    Mining can indeed lower infrastructure expenses, and that’s why SMCRA provided a narrow exemption for mountaintop removal if specific economically beneficial post-mining land use plans were included in the permit. The problem is that 97% of the mountaintop removal mining has not met those requirements, but has been allowed anyway because of lax enforcement by federal and state agencies. This has made almost any other economic development impossible, as there aren’t a lot of entrepreneurs who want to start a business where drinking water is causing cancer, blasts are cracking the foundations of homes, and 100-year floods occur every year or two.

    I’m certain that there are a lot of people legitimately fearful for their jobs, and fear tends to bring out the worst in all of us. You’re probably right that the shouting and intimidation result largely from that. Unfortunately, every legitimate independent energy analyst projects that mining jobs in Central Appalachia will continue their steep decline for the foreseeable future. People in Appalachia – miners included – would be served far better by a concerted effort to bring new industries and new opportunities to the region, rather than elected officials throwing around discredited rhetoric about the need for more flat land.

  13. Casey says:

    I think the WV’s business climate ranking matters to the whole state. A better climate would create more opportunities for everyone. Coal is mined in areas because it is 1) there 2) easily accessible and 3) economical. If the coal was not there then there certainly would not be much economic activity nor population. I don’t think anyone has shown that if coal and coal mining did not exist that these areas would be more prosperous.

    There might be a relationship to topographic relief and steepness, to economic success. Those areas with a lot of relief and steepness also provide easy access to the coal for mining versus areas where the coal is below drainage, and these areas also have little infrastructure (needed for economic activity) due to the expense.

    All I said was that mining can create infrastructure in SOME cases and this has been true.

    I agree with you Matt, WV should work to diversify the economy and the best way to do that is to change the business climate. A one-party state has not worked. I suggest that this diversification and mining are not mutually exclusive. Thanks for the comments.

  14. JAWVMM says:

    We keep speaking as if West Virginia is not diversified. Manufacturing employs more people than mining, as does the plethora of federal installations we now have. I see lots of statements that we are not diversified; could someone please substantiate the reasoning that coal is *the* economic driver?

  15. Lorelei Scarbro says:

    I hope everyone connected the dots between “the extraction state” and the many trips to DC. This is what he is selling on Capitol Hill. If he can turn the focus from who and what we are by changing the words he may be successful. He tried this with “Open for Business” and it didn’t work. This is the same song, just a different verse. If he can get Emanuel and Obama to see us only for the value of what we have to extract instead of what we have always been then the play on words is helpful in his crusade.
    We need to correct him and others every time they use these terms and remind him that we are mountaineers and we are valuable because of that. One thing he also said that was not shown in this piece was “We have to extract energy”. He refuses to be a part of a discussion for renewables in the coal fields.
    We are asking for job diversity in the coal fields. We are aware of job diversity in other parts of the state. But you must remember the only mountains they will destroy are the ones with coal in them. In WV, that is pretty much all of them. So if this is not in your back yard now, just wait, they are coming.

  16. JAWVMM says:

    Thanks, Lorelei. I think we need to keep pointing out that it is the southern coal fields specifically that are not diversified. The constant repetition that West Virginia as a whole depends primarily on coal allows the coal interests to alarm everyone else that their livelihood, too, depends primarily on coal and distort the whole argument. It is why the governor can get away with saying we are an extractive state.

    And either diversification of the economy does not work to keep the coal interests from running roughshod over the people and the environment, or those parts of the state that are diversified will be able to protect themselves better. I think the relative (and only relative) success of regulating gas drilling may illustrate this. It takes place in more diversified parts of the state, and local governments and WVDEP seem to be able to rein it in more easily.

  17. Nanette says:

    Scott14, Ken may delete my comment to you, but I feel that I need to say something about ownership of the land. You say these companies own the land that they mine. Well much of this land came into the hands of the land companies through nefarious means. I have done much study of history, plus I sat at the knees of many of my elders who were born in the 1800s. An awful lot of this land was just taken by the industrialists and barons of the 1800s. During the Civil War many of the courthouses were made of wood and they were burned down. All proof of ownership of thousands and thousands of acres were lost.

    It is true that some people signed their land away, but a lot of it was just taken from them. So when many of us refer to “our mountains”, we mean it. They were our mountains, and to see them destroyed stirs a terrible feeling inside of us.

    I am aware that many people don’t know the history of the land here, but I am here to tell you that coal has never been a friend to WV. They saw and opportunity and they grabbed it. The people who immigrated here in later years did not know the history. The coal industry are the true outsiders here, not the residents or the WV born “treehuggers”. We have been here far longer than any coal company or out of state land companies.

    I hope that you don’t take this as being rude or mean, I don’t want it to so sound that way at all. I am just trying to educate you a little on the history of our land.

  18. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Nanette, all —

    As a general matter, if you start to post a comment and you feel the need to say, “Well, Ken may delete this,” then you need to rethink your post. If you think you’re crossing the line, then stop, take a walk around the block, and then come back and post something else.

    In this case, I’m not sure Nanette really cross any lines, though.

    And, of course, land ownership is a huge issue in the coalfields.

    In my mind, one of the single best pieces of journalism in our state’s history is Tom Miller’s Who Owns West Virginia. It’s available here:


  19. Nanette says:

    Thanks Ken, I didn’t know if my post would be acceptable. I was afraid that you would think I was attacking although I never mean too.

  20. Scott 14 says:

    Nanette, I realize the history of land purchases in WV but this is 2009. The law says that this property is the companys not yours. Maybe the mine owner didnt buy the property from our ancestors. Maybe it was bought at a tax auction. All im saying is that it is their land they should be allowed to develop it as they see fit.

  21. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Scott 14 —

    Again, property rights are not absolute.

    SMCRA spells out very specific requirements for reclamation and for post-mining land uses. They are very frequently not enforced.

    (See for example, what OSMRE found when it looked at the new “forestry reclamation approach” in West Virginia. Even the WVDEP inspectors weren’t following the rules.

    Coal operators challenged SMCRA in court in the late 1970s and early 1980s, alleging it violated their private property rights. They lost.

    That means they aren’t allowed to do whatever they want. If they want to mine coal, they have to follow SMCRA’s requirements — that is, if those requirements are enforced.


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