BLAIR - In 1992, when Arch Coal Inc. bought a huge Logan County mountaintop removal mine, company officials decided upon a plan to buy out nearby residents so there would be no one left to complain about blasting, dust and flyrock.
Arch Coal land agents required Blair residents who wanted the company to buy their property to sign agreements that they would never again protest a strip mine. Residents who wanted the company to buy them out were also required to promise not to live or buy property in the area where Arch Coal operates mines.
Earlier this year, Arch Coal officials described these plans in sworn statements made as part of a lawsuit filed against Arch Coal by a family who once lived in the shadow of the Dal-Tex mountaintop removal mine.
"It is easier to mine coal without people around," Arch Coal land agent Terence Irons testified in his March legal deposition. "Because it's been our experience that people don't enjoy living close to mining operations." Since 1993, land holding companies associated with Arch Coal bought the homes of roughly 200 families who once lived in Blair, according to public land transaction records, court documents, media reports and interviews.
Blair residents who wanted to sell and move to escape the mine were given a take-it-or-leave-it deal by the company: Agree to Arch Coal's terms, or the company won't buy your property, company officials said.
Ken Woodring, an Arch Coal vice president, testified that, "In a situation where we are acquiring someone's property, particularly in a case where they perceive that our mining operation is causing an inconvenience for them, we felt for the long-term benefit of both parties, it's better that they not relocate into the area which they are leaving.
"If they're leaving because of a perceived inconvenience that's perceived as having been caused by the mining operation, we don't feel either party is benefiting if they don't relocate their residence," Woodring said during a July deposition.
Today, Arch Coal is conducting a massive public relations campaign to promote itself as a good corporate neighbor to the communities where it operates.
"Responsible mountaintop mining: It's good for West Virginia, and it's the right thing to do," the company proclaims in full-page newspaper ads published across the state.
In brochures mailed to thousands of residents, Arch Coal President Steven F. Leer said, "We are committed to being a good neighbor and a positive force in the communities where we operate.
"We are constantly seeking new ways to lessen any adverse impacts our operations may have on surrounding communities. Our miners live near these operations and value their mountain heritage." Moving the Moores Tommy and Victoria Moore lived in Blair for six years. By October 1996, they got tired of mine blasts that rattled windows and shook their home. Dust from the mine severely aggravated their son's asthma.
"If you were inside, it interrupted your life. It you were outside, it interrupted your life," Victoria Moore said in a sworn statement this summer.
"I couldn't sit on my porch without getting dust on me," Moore said.
"I couldn't even walk in my grass. I couldn't get in my car. I couldn't even let my kids go out and play without the dust." The Moores moved, but they didn't sell their property to Arch Coal.
Instead, they sued the company. West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley, Morgantown lawyer Suzanne Weise, and Athens, Ohio, environmental lawyer Robert Shostak took the Moores' case.
In September 1997, the lawyers filed a complaint on the Moores' behalf in Logan County Circuit Court. The complaint alleged that Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc. operated noisy and dirty heavy equipment around the clock, set off explosions that rocked the foundations of homes and blew unhealthy amounts of dust into the community.
In March, June and July 1998, McGinley and Weise took sworn statements from more than a dozen Arch Coal employees. In preparation for trial, lawyers interview people involved under oath. They use these sworn statements to sort out the facts of a case. Unlike a trial, depositions do not include cross-examination of witnesses by the other side.
In law offices in Charleston and St. Louis, where Arch Coal is headquartered, McGinley and Weise interviewed company executives, managers, land agents and technical staffers. Among other things, company officials acknowledged that: - They knew dynamite blasts and huge earth-moving machines used to mine coal at Dal-Tex would make life so miserable for many Blair residents that they would want to sell their homes and move.
- Company officials made no serious effort to scale down the mine so it would not intrude upon the lives of Blair residents. Minor steps the company did take never worked.
- Company executives decided on a plan to buy out anyone who complained about the mine.
- Anyone who wanted Arch Coal to buy their property had to sign an agreement to never again protest a strip mine. Anyone who signed the agreement also pledged never to live or own property in a 25-square-mile region around Arch Coal's Logan County mining complex.
In late July, the Moores' lawyers asked Logan Circuit Judge Eric O'Briant to add Ark Land Co. and Allegheny Land Co., affiliates of Arch Coal, to the suit as defendants. They asked the judge to add to the suit claims of civil conspiracy, civil fraud, and public nuisance.
The three companies "conspired with each other to operate and implement what they have identified as a 'target property acquisition' program which was intended to force and coerce [the Moores] and other families residing near the Dal-Tex complex to move forever' from their homes in the Blair area." With their request, the lawyers included portions of the company's depositions with their motion to amend the complaint, filed as a public record in the Logan County Courthouse. At the Moores' request, their lawyers provided copies of the depositions to the Sunday Gazette-Mail in July and August.
On Sept. 1, Arch Coal lawyers settled the case. The company paid the Moores $225,000 to drop their suit, according to a seven-page settlement agreement on file in Logan.
The Moores must use part of the money to pay their lawyers, expert witnesses and other legal costs. An estimate of those costs was not available. The Moores and their lawyers declined comment on the case and settlement.
Of the $225,000 paid by the company, Arch Coal paid $35,000 to the Moores for their three-quarter-acre lot in Blair and the mobile home that sat on it, according to the settlement agreement. Also, $10,000 will be set aside for each of the Moores' children, Dustin and Levi, according to the agreement.
David Todd, a vice president and press spokesman for Arch Coal, said he could not comment on the settlement.
The settlement document states that "the parties agree to keep the terms of this settlement agreement confidential and shall not discuss or release the terms unless required to do so by order of a court." In an interview last week, Todd acknowledged that Arch Coal had tried to buy out many Blair residents.
"Our philosophy is not to impact people," Todd said. "And if there are no people to impact, that is consistent with our philosophy." Historic Blair Mountain In September 1921, coal miners marching south to help unionize Mingo County's coalfields clashed with sheriff's deputies and U.S. Army troops on Blair Mountain, in what is believed to have been the largest armed confrontation in labor history.
Blair Mountain is now home to the nation's fourth largest mining complex. Last year, Arch Coal's Hobet Mining arm produced more than 6 million tons of coal at Dal-Tex. Four hundred United Mine Workers are employed there.
In April 1992, Huntington-based Ashland Coal Inc. bought Dal-Tex Coal Corp. In July 1997, Ashland Coal merged with Arch Mineral Corp. to form Arch Coal Inc.
Ashland Coal officials immediately began to expand the mine, according to financial disclosures the company filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. They spent millions of dollars on bigger shovels, loaders and trucks. In 1993, Dal-Tex started operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The extended hours were expected to add 1 million tons a year of coal production.
Even before the mine expanded, neighbors had complained that it was a nuisance.
In 1991, The Charleston Gazette published a story about a group of residents who protested that the mine interfered with their lives.