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Coal vs. wind: Energy fight rages in W.Va.

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[October 25, 2008]  DOROTHY, W.Va. (AP) -- Tacked to the front porch of a cabin atop Kayford Mountain is a sign. "Larry's Place," it reads. "Almost Heaven."

Almost. It takes just five minutes for Larry Gibson to walk past a collection of campers, through the purple-berried pokeweed and the dust-covered trees, to the crumbling overlook he calls Hell's Gate.

CivicIt is a window onto a flat and barren pile of rubble, a gray, alien landscape where only machines now move. It's a small example of mountaintop removal mining, he explains. Only 900 acres.

Then he turns away from the Patriot Coal Corp. project and gazes left toward the unbroken green tentacles of the Coal River Mountain.

It is a web of jagged ridges rather than a single peak, some rising more than 3,300 feet. At its base are neighborhoods like picture-perfect Colcord, a few dozen neatly kept homes along trickling Sycamore Creek. Under its canopy are bears and blackberries, white-tailed deer and wild turkey, ginseng and sassafras.

And like so many in southern West Virginia, it is a mountain that could be blown to bits for its coal.

In it, Massey Energy, holder of state permits to blast 6,000 acres, sees the future -- and a fortune. With the spot-market price of steam coal at $133 a ton and likely to rise, the mountain is a rich natural resource capable of feeding power plants for 14 years. Massey plans to start work as soon as federal regulators approve.


But Gibson and a growing number of neighbors propose a different future, one in which the mountain survives.

Mine coal the traditional way, they say. Dig tunnels and leave the mountaintop intact for 200 gleaming white windmills. The blades could spin in the industrial-strength wind, generating enough electricity for 150,000 homes and ensuring that West Virginia remains an energy producer long after its fossil fuels are tapped out.

Gibson, whose family has owned land here for 235 years, has spent a third of his life fighting the companies that have redefined strip mining in this part of the country. He sees their mountaintop removal methods as no less than "the genocide of Appalachia," the unnecessary sacrifice of a people, a culture and the hills that bind them.

"This land right here has done as much for the people as their own mother did," says the spry 62-year-old in denim overalls. "My mother give me birth, but this land give me life."

A solar panel powers his phone and lights. Logs feed the potbellied stove.

"I wouldn't put a lump of coal in this daggone place if I was freezin' to death tomorrow," he says. "Coal's something we used in primitive times... We can surely do better."


More than 300 million years ago, southern West Virginia was a steamy swamp thick with plants that sank as they died, forming layers of dense, waterlogged peat. As the earth's surface shifted, sand, clay and other minerals landed atop the peat, squeezing it dry and gradually heating it. Over time, every 3 to 7 feet of peat became a foot of coal. When thrusting and folding pushed up the Appalachian Mountains, the coal came with them.

By the mid-1700s, coal's potential had been discovered, and by the middle of the next century, mining was big business. Since record-keeping began in 1836, more than 13 billion tons have been dug from West Virginia alone, and the state remains the nation's second-largest producer behind Wyoming.

Coal is the most reliable and affordable energy source in the United States, with some 52 billion tons of reserves still underground, the West Virginia Coal Association says. That's enough to ensure a long, productive future for the nearly 50,000 people who depend directly and indirectly on the state's 600 mines for work.

But with those reserves becoming harder to reach, companies want faster, cheaper ways to mine multiple seams at once.

In mountaintop removal, forests are clear-cut. Holes are drilled to blast apart the rock, and massive machines, some with buckets big enough to hold 24 compact cars, scoop the coal from the exposed seams.

The rock and dirt left behind, the "spoil," is then dumped -- one 240-ton truckload at a time -- into adjacent valleys, changing the natural shape of the earth, lowering the height of the mountain and covering streams with so-called "valley fills."

Coal River Mountain Watch, the environmental group that advocates the wind farm, says more Americans are demanding clean energy, so it's the perfect time to consider a more sustainable use for the mountain.

It's also the perfect place: For industrial wind farms, developers seek sites with wind speeds of at least 15.7 mph, the minimum to be labeled Class 4. At its current height, Coal River Mountain catches winds that range from Class 4 to Class 7, with speeds up to and exceeding 19.7 mph.

But the battle is uphill when nearly everyone stands to get rich from the coal.

The companies that own the mountain, mainly Rowland Land Co. and Pocahontas Coal Co., make money leasing it to Virginia-based Massey. Massey makes money selling what it digs. Shareholders make money when Massey's stock price rises. Chief Executive Don Blankenship makes money when shareholders are happy.

And state budget-builders get more than $300 million a year in coal severance taxes. Although it's a fraction of the total $10.4 billion spending plan, the government needs the money.

"So do hookers and so do pimps," grumbles 53-year-old Lorelei Scarbro, who lost her coal miner husband to black lung and whose 10 acres on Rock Creek are threatened by Massey's plan. "That doesn't make it OK. ... It's not OK for us to be sacrificed so the rest of the world can have more energy."

Scarbro is part of an Internet campaign to stop the destruction of Coal River Mountain, a movement that's drawing support from the Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network and the National Resources Defense Council, among others.

To lure cameras to the cause, the activists bring in celebrity visitors like singer Kathy Mattea, a West Virginia native, and Big Kenny Alphin, half of the country duo Big & Rich.

But the industry has a campaign and celebrities of its own.

It formed the Friends of Coal, tapping into the enduring fame of former West Virginia and Marshall university football coaches Don Nehlen and Bob Pruett, and sponsoring new faces like competitive bass fisherman Jeremy Starks.


"The fact is that we have a small band of environmental extremists who just want to shut down mining in West Virginia," says Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the Coal Association.

At Coal River Mountain, he says, "It's hard to tell if this is a proposal aimed at slowing down mining or restricting mining in that area, or if it's a bona fide proposal to build windmills."

West Virginians need not pit one form of energy against another, he argues. The nation needs them all.

At Konnie's Kitchen in Sylvester, a miner's widow and her daughter stiffen at the suggestion surface mining be stopped. Myrtle Lamb, now 81, lives on her husband's pension; daughter Loretta Board is married to a surface miner.

"They gotta work," Board says. "That's their living. You can't take that away from them."

At an adjacent table, 29-year-old miner Eric Bragg has a tattoo on his left biceps: a skull under a hardhat, its crossbones formed by a shovel and pickax.

"It's just trying to put people out of jobs," he says.

In West Virginia's southern coalfields there are generally three kinds of work: mining, logging and minimum-wage. Thinking about global warming is a luxury some can't afford, the notion of windmills laughable.

"That's kind of funny. I never heard that before," says 21-year-old John Sprouse, chuckling and shaking his head in disbelief, unaware of a 22-turbine farm in Tucker County, 250 miles away.

Mountaintop mining may not be pretty, he says, and it may well happen in his own back yard.

"But it's the way of life right now," he says with a shrug, "and I guess that's the way we gotta go."


On Coal River Mountain, the question is really about how -- not whether -- to mine.

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Coal rumbles away, all day every day, in trucks on the Coal River Road. It crisscrosses the highway and the Big Coal River on a network of conveyor belts from portals to processing plants. Shiny new pickups and convenience store doors bear Friends of Coal stickers.

And everywhere are the miners in their telltale navy blue, pants and jackets slashed with reflective stripes of lime-green or orange.

Joyce Gunnoe, keeper of a general store in Dry Creek, sees the wind farm advocates as meddling outsiders bent on destroying a way of life. They don't, as she puts it, "have a dog in this fight."

"We work here. We live here. We were born and raised here," she says. "Coal hasn't hurt us. Coal's helped us."

While she acknowledges many locals also want to stop mountaintop mining, she says they're mainly people who are retired or disabled, people who no longer need the work the mines offer.

Yes, she hears the blasting, the equipment, the trucks.

"But the way I see it, those are guys trying to make a living, to keep us here, to keep our schools open."

Even supporters of the wind farm understand that a transition from coal will take time.

"Our politicians have never seen fit to diversify," says Bob Wills, who has lived on a picturesque, 99-acre Rock Creek farm for most of his life. His son, like many young people trying to avoid the mines, took the only path he could find -- the one out of state.

"If they do away with the mining, then I don't know what people are going to do," Wills says. "It's a necessary evil, I guess."

Back in the 1970s, the federal government passed laws to control damage from surface mining, and underground mining remained the dominant method of production for many years.

But after Wyoming supplanted Appalachia as the nation's biggest supplier of coal, that began to change. Across the central Appalachian coalfields, operators began to see mountaintop removal as a cheaper way to compete.

The National Mining Association now estimates that between 14 percent and 15 percent of the nation's coal production comes from mountaintop removal mining. In Appalachia, the number of surface mines now exceeds underground operations.

Curtis Moore, who runs Good Samaritan Ministry in Whitesville, tries to describe the results for people who live in New York, Chicago, Atlanta.

"Just remove your skyscrapers. Take it down to ground zero and then see what your city looks like," he says. "They'd be devastated. And that's what it is here with the mountains."

A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated 400,000 acres of forest were wiped out and nearly 724 miles of streams buried between 1985 and 2001 alone. North Carolina-based Appalachian Voices, which maintains the ilovemountains.org Web site, estimates 470 mountains have already been destroyed.

In an e-mail to The Associated Press on Thursday, CEO Don Blankenship insisted Massey mines responsibly, with safety and the environment in mind. Cost, he said, is not the only consideration.

"Most coal mined by surface mining cannot be deep mined," he wrote. "Energy resources would be lost if not surface mined.

"Our company is an energy company," he added. "We produce mostly coal, but also natural gas. If wind farms proved to be economical, we would invest in them. We are studying that possibility, but the answer is not yet clear in West Virginia."

To retired union miner Lloyd Brown of Whitesville, it's this simple: "There's a right way and a wrong way to mine coal. Massey's come in here, and he (Blankenship) has raped the southern part of West Virginia just to get the coal.

"They're taking away the beauty of West Virginia," he says. "This is part of the beauty, our mountains. They say they put them back better than they were. I don't see that."

In theory, coal operators restore the land to its approximate original contour and replant it for future use. Blankenship even suggests "windmills are more practical on mountains after mining than before" because of the access and infrastructure that are created.

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But critics say mined ground is an unstable pile of rubble, too shaky and too short -- by several hundred feet in the Coal River Mountain scenario -- to catch the best winds.

Across Appalachia golf courses, shopping centers, regional jails and factories have been built on one-time mines. Even the FBI complex in Clarksburg was built atop a former strip mine.

But a mountain mined never looks the same.

"I'm not well educated. I don't have a lot of fancy words," says Sam McGee, a former miner who lives on Rock Creek, below Massey's proposed blasting site. "All I can do is speak from the heart and say they're destroying us."


Environmental groups aren't banking on Blankenship to drop his plans and embrace the wind farm.

"With the coal companies, there is no compromise," says Rory McIlmoil, an organizer with Coal River Mountain Watch.

Rather, they are hoping that politicians can be persuaded and that a West Virginia lawsuit before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will reshape the situation.

Environmental groups, backed by a 2007 U.S. District Court ruling, argue the Army Corps of Engineers failed to fully consider the environmental damage that would be caused by issuing four valley fill permits to Massey subsidiaries.

The corps, however, contends the regulations the plaintiffs want fall under state mining laws, and rejecting the state-issued permits would have been a de facto veto of its authority.

And that's why C.C. Ballard, with 39 years of experience at Peabody and Patriot mines, thinks nothing will change.

"They're not going to get it stopped. There's no way," says the white-bearded 58-year-old, washing a car at his home in Stickney after finishing a night shift underground.

"They're going to come in here, they're going to take everything that West Virginia's got. We're gonna be left with a big hole in the ground and nothing to show for it."

Last month, Gov. Joe Manchin declined to intervene in the Coal River Mountain dispute, despite mounting pressure that included a demonstration at the Capitol. It would be inappropriate, he said, to rescind the permits granted by state regulators.

"If we can't do it in a more productive manner, it shouldn't be done, I understand that," he says. "And we're looking at that, and I think there are better ways. But just to say we're going to shut it down? We cannot afford in the United States of America to discount any part of our energy portfolio."


At Flint's Hardware in Sylvester, where miners come for uniforms and other supplies, a railroad conductor who hauls coal says it's time Manchin and everyone else realize that coal is a finite resource.

"If they don't do something with wind and water," says Charles Cowley, "we're all going to be with the lights out."

[Associated Press; By VICKI SMITH]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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