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DEP denies petition to declare Blair Mountain unsuitable for mining

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has denied a petition asking that Blair Mountain be declared unsuitable for mining.

In a letter written earlier this week, a DEP lawyer called the June 2 petition, which was filed by several groups, "frivolous" under state law.

The largest armed confrontation in U.S. history took place in late August and early September 1921 along the Blair Mountain ridge, on the border of Boone and Logan counties. More than 10,000 union miners were marching toward the southern coalfields, attempting to organize nonunion miners.

Massey Energy, now part of Alpha Natural Resources, and Arch Coal have indicated they hope to develop strip-mining operations on Blair Mountain.

Gordon Simmons, president of the West Virginia Labor History Association, said Thursday, "I find it strange that an agency of state government would dismiss something as frivolous that involves an important historic event in the state's history.

"Blair Mountain has not been surface mined," he said. "You can still see the entrenchments from the battle in 1921. We have no objections to deep mining under the mountains."

Last month, about 1,200 people participated in a five-day march to preserve the site. Their march began in Marmet, where the historic 1921 march began, and ended up on top of Blair Mountain.

The June 2 petition was filed by the Sierra Club, Friends of Blair Mountain, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Labor History Association and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

The groups are represented by lawyers Derek Teaney of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment in Lewisburg, and Jessica Yarnell of the Sierra Club in San Francisco.

"We have known all along that [the] DEP is a lapdog of the coal industry," said OVEC executive director Janet Keating. "We didn't expect any support from them."

Thomas L. Clarke, a DEP lawyer, wrote the letter on July 5 denying the petition.

"What we are doing is applying the rules about lands unsuitable [for preservation]," Clarke said Thursday. "There have been other efforts to list Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places. There has been a listing and a delisting and other litigation over this issue."

Brandon Price, a local representative of the Sierra Club, criticized the DEP for making a decision without holding a public hearing.

"Their outright rejection of the petition without fair hearing should be condemned," Price said. "If the DEP cannot do their job, then maybe it is time for the Governor's Office to step in and help Blair Mountain obtain the protection it deserves."

Brandon Nida, who does archaeological research at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a member of Friends of Blair Mountain, said that, since 1991, multiple archaeological surveys have "uncovered artifacts and information that have contributed immensely to our understanding of the significance of the battlefield."

That research uncovered 15 previously unknown battle sites at Blair Mountain, Nida said.

In April, the United Mine Workers joined a lawsuit filed against U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, seeking to restore Blair Mountain to the National Register.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, also was filed by the Sierra Club, OVEC, Friends of Blair Mountain and West Virginia Labor History Association.

The federal district court has not made a decision yet.

In his July 5 letter, Clarke called the petition filed with DEP "frivolous" under state law because it "exempts certain lands from being designated as unsuitable for mining."

Clarke said lands cannot be designated as "unsuitable for mining" if they were covered by mining permits before August 1977, after a new federal law regulating strip mining was passed.

Clarke also wrote that the DEP "shall not consider a petition for an area which was previously and unsuccessfully proposed for designation which does not present new allegations of facts."

A significant portion of the 1,668 acres on Blair Mountain the environmental and public interest groups hope to preserve, Clarke added in his letter, "has been affected in the past and continues to be affected by oil and gas and logging operations."

"We don't dispute that the area is historic," Clarke said Thursday. "We apply regulations.  . . .  Our rules say, if an area has been confirmed for mining by a permit in the past, it is exempt from being considered for historic preservation."

Teaney, of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, said he wouldn't comment on what the groups' next steps would be.

 "We have not ruled out any options," he said, "but our policy is not to comment on things that are in litigation or could be in litigation."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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