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CNN to broadcast Blair Mountain documentary

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Sunday evening, CNN will broadcast a new hour-long documentary -- "Battle For Blair Mountain" -- about ongoing disputes regarding mountaintop-removal mining near the historic site of the 1921 battle between 10,000 union miners and company guards from Logan County.

In making the documentary, Soledad O'Brien spoke to people on all sides of the issue, often focusing on a recent decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deny a permit to Spruce Mine No. 1, near the town of Sharples in Logan County at the bottom of Blair Mountain.

Arch Coal was planning to begin operating what would have become the largest mountaintop-removal mine in the state.

"This is a huge issue," O'Brien said during a telephone interview. "One of my producers brought the story to us, because the issue of coal mining in general was interesting to him before the EPA decision.

"We started researching the story. Then the EPA decision came down. What happened, as people watched it unfold, is the topic of our documentary."

O'Brien and CNN interviewed local residents who support and oppose mountaintop-removal mining, as well as political figures and scientists throughout the region.

"Letting all voices have their say, you can flesh out a nuanced story about what is an important economic and political issue in West Virginia," O'Brien said. "We wanted to tell the story of coal mining families and people who live in the communities -- and the impact on them."

The EPA ruling on Spruce No. 1 devastated people like Linda Dials and her husband, James, who does reclamation work at a nearby mountaintop-removal mine.

The Dials both fear that James will lose his job in the next two or three years. He already is working to find another job. The Dials blame the current battle on outsiders who don't understand what it means to work and live as a coal miner.

Jimmy Weekley, the last local holdout who refused to sell his home and property to Arch Coal, was delighted by the EPA decision, saying it was also a "victory" for his late wife.

Billy Smutko, whose father and grandfathers were coal miners, has lived in Sharples his whole life, near the Dials family. Smutko said he believes coal mining is important to the area, but argues it can be done more responsibly than by removing mountaintops.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told CNN the Spruce No. 1 Mine would destroy seven miles of streams and more than 2,000 acres of forested lands.

"The people of West Virginia deserve jobs and the people of West Virginia deserve clean water," Jackson told CNN. "Science says that what they're proposing to do . . . is going to make the water quality irreversibly bad."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., vigorously disagreed with Jackson and said, there "is no scientific proof for what you [EPA officials] are doing."

It was the first time the EPA ever used its veto power under the Clean Water Act to block a mountaintop-removal permit previously approved by state agencies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Meg Gaffner-Smith of the Corps of Engineers told CNN it "might be time to rethink what's acceptable."

Arch Coal declined to talk to CNN reporters, but it did issue this statement: "We believe that this decision will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investments because every business possessing or requiring a permit under Section 404c of the Clean Water Act will fear similar overreaching by the EPA."

Arch said it believes the EPA action will cost Logan County 250 jobs and millions of dollars in wages and revenue.

CNN also shows videos of protesters who marched in June from Marmet to Blair Mountain, a protest demanding that the historic mountain be preserved from mines planned by Arch and the former Massey Energy.

CNN also talked to residents who opposed the marchers, many who shouted "Shame On You" to the marchers.

O'Brien interviewed Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University public health professor who has conducted research on the impact of mountaintop-removal mines for the past five years. With support from the U.S. Geological Survey, Hendryx is now doing a field study in the Sharples area.

Pollution running off mountaintop-removal sites increases the rates of cancer, chronic heart disease, lung disease, kidney problems, low-weight babies and birth defects, Hendryx argues.

"I think that it is really the biggest public health problem that West Virginia faces . . .  . Rates of disease are higher here in these areas that are closer to mountaintop-mining activity," Hendryx said. "We know it is partly related to the poor economic conditions and partly related to things like smoking, obesity or other behaviors -- but not totally. My hypothesis is that mountaintop mining is a contributing factor."

O'Brien said, "Ultimately, this is an issue important to all Americans. What everyone is talking about today is jobs, jobs, jobs.

"The debate about the Battle of Blair Mountain is a battle over a piece of land and also about jobs -- and the cost to the environment and to future generations.

"It is not just relevant to people fighting the battles in West Virginia, but to anyone who flicks a power switch and expects the lights to come on."

On Thursday, CNN and ORC International released results of a new public opinion survey they conducted that found 57 percent of people who responded opposed mountaintop-removal mining, 36 percent favored it and 7 percent had no opinion.

CNN conducted and released the survey results in conjunction with the upcoming airing of the "Battle For Blair Mountain."

Sunday's broadcast will begin at 8 p.m. CNN also will rebroadcast the new documentary about Blair Mountain on Aug. 20 at 8 p.m.

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


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