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Federal judge upholds Blair Mountain Battlefield removal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge on Tuesday upheld a decision to remove Blair Mountain Battlefield, the scene of the largest armed confrontation in U.S. labor history, from the National Register of Historic Places.

The decision to remove Blair Mountain, initially made by the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, was upheld Tuesday by a judge with U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

More than 90 years ago -- between Aug. 25 and Sept. 2, 1921 -- more than 10,000 union coal miners fought with armed coal company guards along the Blair Mountain Ridge near the Logan-Boone county border. It ended only after federal troops intervened.

The National Park Service added Blair Mountain to its National Register of Historic Places in March 2009. Nine months later, in December, the NPS reversed its decision after a dispute about who owns the properties on Blair Mountain.

Several labor and environmental organizations filed a lawsuit on Sept. 9, 2010, seeking to reverse the decision.

They included the Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Friends of Blair Mountain, West Virginia Labor History Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

"Restoring Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places would help permanently protect this important landmark from being destroyed by the same coal industry that fought against worker's rights at its summit," said Regina Hendrix with the Sierra Club's West Virginia chapter.

The ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, maintained that those groups have no legal standing because no coal companies have announced immediate plans to begin mining on Blair Mountain.

Hendrix said, "We believe the judge is wrong and there is a real and imminent threat of Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal or other companies destroying Blair Mountain.

"We will continue to watch out for, and defend, this historic site and the legacy of those who died standing up for the rights of hard working miners," she said.

Part of the legal dispute over whether to keep Blair Mountain on the National Register was whether a majority of local property owners supported the decision.

"If a majority of owners of properties within a historic district object to the property's inclusion on the National Register, 'such property shall not be included on the National Register ... until such objection is withdrawn,'" Walton wrote.

Natural Resource Partners, Arch Coal and Massey Energy, all represented by Charleston law firm Jackson Kelly, filed a petition with the keeper of the National Register to allow them to mine coal they own in the area of Blair Mountain.

Jackson Kelly lawyers said that they determined a majority of local landowners opposed designating Blair Mountain as a historic site.

At the time, the West Virginia Preservation Office stated that "it had received objections from less than half of the owners," according to Walton's ruling.

Hendrix said, "The Battle for Blair Mountain is a central event in labor history in the United States and certainly one of the best known of the many labor struggles in West Virginia. The actual site of the battle is a key part of our history and should be preserved for our children's children to visit and explore.

"After many nominations and revisions the site was finally listed on the National Historic Register in 2009, only to be unfortunately de-listed later that year in a move that puts the future of this important place at risk," Hendrix said.

According to Walton's ruling, the plaintiffs argued that surface mining would destroy important topographical features of the battlefield, such as hilltops and promontories where guns were mounted, "which define the battlefield site, as well as cultural resources that contribute to the historic significance of the site."

Walton argued that plaintiffs failed to "identify sufficient support ... for the proposition that the potential harm from surface mining is 'actual or imminent.' ... The companies in possession of the [mining] permits have thus far declined to exercise the rights afforded to them by the permits," he wrote.

The decision also notes that the ability to predict what coal companies might decide to do in the future is in large part outside of the plaintiffs' "personal knowledge."

"The likelihood that removing the property from the National Register will increase the risk of surface mining in the near future, thereby harming the Battlefield, is uncertain at best," Walton wrote.

Gordon Simmons, president of the West Virginia Labor History Association, said the group "will definitely favor an appeal of Walton's decision. It seems wrongheaded.

"I don't think there is any question in the minds of people in West Virginia, including people in the mining business, about the undisputed historical importance and significance of Blair Mountain," he said.

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


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