Coal Tattoo

Coal industry legend ‘Buck’ Harless has died


I’m just back in the office after an extended holiday break, and we’re learning today of the overnight death of James H. “Buck” Harless, a legendary figure in West Virginia’s coal industry. Here’s the report from West Virginia Public Broadcasting:

Ninety four-year-old James “Buck” Harless has passed away. Harless was born in Gilbert, W.Va. in Mingo County and worked as a miner for the Red Jacket Coal Company for several years after high school.

He gave that up when he bought the Gilbert Lumber Company, and eventually grew it into the multi-million dollar conglomerate, International Industries. The company is based primarily in coal mining and timber, but also includes manufacturing, hotel and real estate industries.

Harless’ philanthropy is felt throughout his home state and especially in his home town of Gilbert.

For some context about Mr. Harless, out-of-state readers may want to go back to this piece from the Wall Street Journal, which reported:

William Raney opened the West Virginia Coal Association’s annual meeting here last month by congratulating the group for helping George W. Bush win this traditionally Democratic state.

“You did everything you could to elect a Republican president,” Mr. Raney, the organization’s director, told the 150 industry executives. Now, “you are already seeing in his actions the payback, if you will, his gratitude for what we did.”

Mr. Raney was the middleman in an unlikely triumvirate that helped pull off a political coup and gave coal a significant edge in this year’s energy debate. His partner in the effort was James H. “Buck” Harless, the union-battling patriarch of West Virginia’s coal industry, who encouraged Mr. Raney and the state’s coal establishment to back Mr. Bush early on and urged the campaign not to cede West Virginia to Al Gore. The third ally was Charles “Dick” Kimbler, an unemployed miners’ union official who blamed Clinton-Gore environmental policies for killing his job and was enlisted by Mr. Raney to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage with union voters.

With their assistance, Mr. Bush carried a state that hadn’t backed a nonincumbent Republican for president since Herbert Hoover in 1928. That gave Mr. Bush West Virginia’s five electoral votes — the equivalent of his victory margin over Mr. Gore. Now, the industry is enjoying a decidedly coal-friendly president, who is reversing an anticoal-policy trend that began gathering momentum when Mr. Bush’s father signed the Clean Air Act of 1990.

At 81 years old, Mr. Harless is the last of West Virginia’s homegrown coal barons. Long a local kingmaker, he hadn’t ventured into national politics much. But in April 1999, he crossed the narrow wooden bridge from his island home on the Guyandotte River to his helicopter pad, took a chopper to his private jet at the Charleston airport and flew to Austin, Texas, to meet then-Gov. Bush.

At the time, Mr. Bush’s nascent campaign saw little hope of carrying West Virginia and was interested in Mr. Harless mainly for his fund-raising potential. At a luncheon for two dozen prospective fund-raisers, the governor and the coal titan hit it off immediately, with Mr. Bush dubbing his guest “Big Buck.” At one point, Mr. Harless asked Mr. Bush how his views on the environment compared with those of Mr. Gore, who had advocated increasing taxes on fossil fuels in order to discourage their use.

The candidate replied that he favored fossil fuels but didn’t want to let Mr. Gore paint him as being against the environment, so he planned to depict his opponent as an extremist, Mr. Harless recalls. “It was obvious then that he wasn’t going to be like Gore and stop coal,” Mr. Harless adds. A White House spokesman said he wouldn’t confirm details of Mr. Bush’s conversations with supporters.

Fueling the industry’s fears of a Gore presidency was a fierce attack that environmentalists were waging against mountaintop-removal mining. The industry contends the practice is the only economically viable way to extract coal from certain locations. Mr. Harless praises the resulting flat spaces as an added benefit for this mountainous state; he owns part of an industrial park on a flattened mountain near his tiny hometown of Gilbert. His own company has blown up several peaks and plans to start work on another this year to take advantage of rising coal prices.

The Gazette named Mr. Harless its “West Virginian of the Year” back in 1983, and I’ve posted a copy of the lengthy profile piece that was published on Jan. 1, 1984, here, and you can read Dr. Paul Nyden’s review a Buck Harless biography here. UPDATED: An initial Gazette story by Dr. Nyden is posted here, and explains.

I certainly won’t claim to have known him very well, but I did cross paths with Mr. Harless any number of times professionally. I recall early on writing about how he resigned from two important state posts over his belief that then-Gov. Gaston Caperton was not using State Police troopers to quell picket line violence during the 1989 Pittston Coal strike.

And in 1996, I did a lengthy interview in which Mr. Harless expressed concern about proposals for more chip-mills and a large pulp mill, saying that West Virginia needed more value-added industries such as furniture factories.