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Mountaintop mining. An emotional issue, to be sure. Rhetoric flies from all sides. It’s hard to know what to believe.

One thing is clear to me: It’s not as black and white as either side would have you believe.

Last fall, I was given the opportunity to take a flyover of a number of mountaintop removal sites in Boone, Logan and Mingo counties, among them the largest such mines in the state.

Beckley Register Herald - Editorial by Dawn Dayton - Saturday, March 1, 2008 

Mountaintop mining. An emotional issue, to be sure. Rhetoric flies from all sides. It’s hard to know what to believe.

One thing is clear to me: It’s not as black and white as either side would have you believe.

Last fall, I was given the opportunity to take a flyover of a number of mountaintop removal sites in Boone, Logan and Mingo counties, among them the largest such mines in the state.

Yes, it’s been several months since I took the trip. And yes, I am just now writing about the experience. This, I think, is indicative of how complicated the issue is. I have been struggling all these months, trying to gain perspective. I’m still not there.

And so, while I try to get a handle on what I really believe about this volatile issue, let me share some of the information provided to me as we flew. Walker Machinery provided the chopper and our tour guide was Roger Lilly, marketing manager for Walker.

We lifted off from the helipad at Walker’s Belle headquarters and soared westward over the Kanawha River. Our tour began over Appalachian Power Co.’s John Amos power plant, a sprawling facility that employs several hundred people and burned in excess of 8 million tons of coal in 2006 (Source: AEP via Coal Facts 2007). An Apco official told the Charleston Daily Mail it takes about 640 miners to supply that coal.

From there we flew on to Boone, Logan and Mingo counties — “ground zero” for mountaintop mining in West Virginia.

I wasn’t sure what I expected to see. Would it be, as the environmental camps portray, nothing but a barren, dusty and flattened landscape laid out below us? Or is the industry right and in reclaimed areas I would see that the mountains had been returned to their original state?

As with most issues that are this extreme, it appeared to me that the answer is somewhere in the middle.

As we flew, Lilly narrated what we (also on the journey were Mel Hancock, coalfields representative for Friends of Coal, and Beckley radio host Steve O’Brien) were seeing. Among his comments, “unless you know where you’re going (as you travel through the state), you won’t see mountaintop mining.”

I can see validity to that statement. As we traveled to see the reclaimed and working mines, we saw few homes or other signs of civilization. The places we were shown were very remote, meaning that the dust and noise from the operation would have little impact on the general populace.

As Lilly continued his travelogue, we were told that 150 million tons of coal is mined annually in West Virginia, 35 percent from surface mines and 65 percent from underground. Many companies work both types.

Is mountaintop mining destroying all of our mountains? As far as I could see, not by a long shot. That impression appears to be confirmed by information provided by the West Virginia Coal Association that says in 22 of the state’s 55 counties the acreage permitted for such mining is less that 1 percent; in four other counties, it is in the 1 to 3 percent range and there are three over that with Boone the largest at 5.5 percent. The 22 remaining counties have no permits for mountaintop mining.

One of the issues I was most concerned with was valley fills. I had read that mountaintop mining covered up streams and I pictured yards-wide flowing bodies of water. While that can be true, it also has further meaning, according to Lilly.

If it rains on top of a mountain, he says, and a drop hits the ground and moves downhill, that is classified as a stream. Who knew? And Lilly says, even after the spoil goes over the hillside and is compacted and filled, that drop of water will still move downhill, but its flow is more controlled.

Nor is “spoil” — the material that is removed during mining and dumped into the fill — composed of garbage, trash and polluting materials. “Spoil” means non-coal material such as rocks and dirt. Federal and state mining regulations specifically dictate standards for such material.

Another thing I didn’t know is that any type of land-disturbing industry works with valley fills. To that end, Lilly added, some of the things federal judges are being asked to ban would not only stop mountaintop mining, they would also bring much construction and road-building to a halt.

All of this — and actually watching as a fill was constructed — somewhat changed my perception of valley fills.

As we continued our flight, Lilly pointed out a number of post-mining uses for reclaimed mountaintop mined sites. Among them were Southwestern Regional Jail in Logan County, a section of the King Coal Highway and Twisted Gun Golf Course in Mingo County, all facilities that have, or will, better the region.

There is no doubt that a working mine is a giant gash on the landscape. It’s not pretty. But there are many other things in this world just as ugly.

The reclaimed areas, once they have begun to mature, are to my eye as beautiful as the original mountains. Hardwood trees are now being planted in many areas and wetlands are added to others, Lilly says. We flew over a few sites that were reclaimed years ago and it was difficult to tell where the original land stopped and the reclaimed portion began.

Lilly allows that the coal industry hasn’t always been the best neighbor, but as the years have gone by, most involved are trying to improve.

My question to the environmentalists is, if they succeed in bringing down the mining industry, what do they think will happen to the economy of this state? What do they think will happen to their friends and neighbors — and not just the ones who work for the coal companies?

Some years ago, ads from the coal industry carried the tag line “Coal is West Virginia.” That tag still fits today.

If people think this state is in bad shape now, just wait. If the environmentalists succeed in making coal go away, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

According to Coal Facts 2007 published by the West Virginia Coal Association, there are more than 500 mines in the state, which provide more than 44,000 direct and contract jobs. The industry pays more than $1 billion in annual payroll and hundreds of millions to state and local governments in taxes and contributions.

Every coal-mining job generates between five and six other jobs in the local economy.

The coal industry and the coal-burning electric generating industry together represent nearly 60 percent of the business taxes paid to the state. If that revenue disappears, how would it be replaced? Odds are it won’t. Millions of dollars for schools, social programs, road repair will be gone. Without funds to prop them up, they will soon disappear.

Do you like your electric lights, heat, computer? Well, 99 percent of the juice comes from coal at an average of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Take coal away and you’ll pay more dearly for power — if it can be replaced at all.

Raleigh County and its five municipalities received more than $1.4 million in coal severance tax revenue in 2006. Boone County’s take was over $4 million. (Source: West Virginia Treasurer’s Office via Coal Facts.) How would you replace those funds?

If the mining jobs go, so do thousands of others in support industries. Jobs that will not be replaced with ones of comparable wages and benefits.

Beyond mining, the bulk of jobs in West Virginia are service-oriented and tourism-related. While greatly important, these do not come close to meeting the economic impact of coal jobs. The average miner earns more than $50,000 annually, more than twice the amount of the statewide average for all workers, according to Coal Facts.

Mountaintop mining may not be the optimum way to get coal out of the ground. Underground mining leaves its scars on the earth as well. But today, they are what we have to pay the bills. Cutting that line is not fathomable until we know with 100 percent certainty that the money it pumps can be replaced.

It is my hope that the judges and others who hold these monumental decisions in their hands can see the utter devastation that surely will follow if they determine certain mining practices must be abolished.

— Dayton is the managing editor for The Register-Herald


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