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Editorial: Buying Blair

ARCH COAL has been running warm and fuzzy ads telling West Virginia how much the giant coal company does to help communities in the state by providing jobs and conducting "responsible mountaintop mining."

What the ads don't say is that Arch officials would prefer that communities near their mines would just vanish.

Reporter Ken Ward Jr., in his ongoing Mining the Mountains series, discovered the lengths Arch goes to in order to rid itself of potential complaints.

"We are constantly seeking new ways to lessen any adverse impacts our operations may have on surrounding communities," says an Arch-produced brochure. The easiest way, Arch has found, is to get rid of those communities.

"Our philosophy is not to impact people," said Arch Vice President and spokesman David Todd in a court deposition. "And if there are no people to impact, that is consistent with our philosophy."

Thus the community of Blair has been all but obliterated by the coal giant. About 200 families were bought out. As part of the deal, the families must sign away their First Amendment rights to criticize strip mining operations, and they must agree never to move back to the area - which has been home to many of them for generations.

As one of the subcommittees of Gov. Underwood's task force on mountaintop removal recognized, approval of a mining permit automatically places homeowners in a weak bargaining position. No one except the coal company would want to buy a home in an area about to be shaken by blasts, pelted by flyrock, inundated with dust and disturbed by around-the-clock rumblings of giant machines.

If the families didn't agree to Arch's terms, the coal company wouldn't buy them out, and they would be stuck in a place no sane person would move to.

Arch officials did very little to make life easier for those who didn't sell their homes. Dust and flyrock are constant problems. (Although Arch officials claim they don't blast when the wind is blowing toward the town of Blair, a blasting supervisor said the company's weather station wasn't accurate enough to say which direction the wind was blowing.)

That same supervisor testified that he was seldom told when the company was cited for dust problems. In 1996, the company received 121 citizen complaints about dust. In 1997, it received 68 citations from the state Division of Environmental Protection for dust-related violations.

Arch also employed a person to oversee dust monitoring who was either incompetent or dishonest. Terah Burdette testified at one mine board hearing that most materials found in dust samples were mold and pollen that didn't come from the mine. Later, she admitted in a deposition that the company monitoring data did not prove that.

In addition, it was revealed in her testimony that she had underestimated the amount of dust in samples by a factor of 10 because she did not realize there are 1,000 micrograms in a milligram, not 100 - a mistake that shouldn't be made by any competent person in that field.

Arch talks a good game about being a good neighbor. But apparently its executives think the best neighbor is no neighbor at all.


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