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Buying Blair: Arch Coal found way to move residents away

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.

 

"The dust, described as 'choking' comes from the surface mines that dominate the countryside," said the June 1991 article. "Blasting, heavy equipment operation and coal trucks leave a film of dust on the area that reappears after every cleaning. Cases of asthma, allergies and bronchitis are reported." At the time, mine manager Allen Workman downplayed the problems.

 

"At any facility such as this one, dust and coal traffic are going to be issues," Workman said. "We work around the clock to try to alleviate any of the problems that come up concerning dust or trucks or any other community complaints." Between 1990 and 1993, four families who lived in the Blair area sued Dal-Tex for blasting damage, loss of well water, and dust and noise nuisances.

 

In three of those cases, Dal-Tex lawyers settled out of court. Details of those settlements have never been made public. In the fourth case, a local judge dismissed the allegations against Dal-Tex.

 

Targeted properties In 1992, when Ashland Coal bought Dal-Tex, company officials paid $242 million for 22,000 acres of property around Blair Mountain. The deal included 220 million tons of valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves.

 

Before the purchase, Ashland Coal land agents studied the Dal-Tex property and communities nearby.

 

"When we look at a corporation, we look at their mining operations, we look to see how many properties we think we may need in our mining operation, and also homes that could be impacted by those mining operations," said Irons, the senior land agent for Ashland Coal.

 

In the March 1998 sworn statement, Irons testified that Ashland Coal executives first wanted to buy all of the homes within 300 feet of any active or future Dal-Tex operation. Under federal law, coal companies cannot mine within 300 feet of an occupied dwelling without a waiver from regulatory agencies.

 

Next, Irons said, company mine planners worried about other homes located close to active and future mining, but farther than 300 feet away.

 

"When we were purchasing Dal-Tex, there was some concern expressed that there were homes that would be close to the mining and that there was potential for dust problems and that there probably would be blasting complaints," Irons testified. "Primarily, what we were concerned with was how much money it would cost us to acquire properties." Ashland Coal land agents and engineers marked these homes and their location in relation to mining on a topographic map. They listed potential purchases in order of the priority they were needed to make way for mining. The map, titled, "Target Acquisition Areas," was dated Sept. 18, 1992.

 

"We identified them as people living within proximity of the mining area who might not like living close to a mining operation," Irons said.

 

Irons submitted a report to Woodring, the company vice president of operations. After Woodring and other Ashland Coal executives read the report, they told Irons and his land agents to start buying property.

 

"That's what I was told, that we wanted to acquire everything that was on the opposite side of the Moore property, any of those houses there, down Five Block to Blair," testified Ashland Coal land agent James Stephens. "Anything that was on the right hand side as you are going to Blair.

 

"Some of those houses I was told by management that we needed to acquire because of the close proximity to our mining operation. Others were bought as the result of people requesting that we buy them; [they wanted] to leave that area. And some of them were bought for nuisance." Between January 1993 and July 1998, land holding companies associated with Ashland Coal and Arch Mineral Corp. bought more than 190 properties in Logan County, according to deeds on file with the Logan County clerk.

 

Records from the Moores' lawsuit show that company land agents paid at least $6 million for property in the Blair area alone.

 

National attention The sales of Blair property have drawn widespread national media attention.

 

In a September 1997 article in U.S. News and World Report, journalist Penny Loeb wrote that, "The mining operation has bombarded houses below with dust, noise and occasional rocks.

 

"So, rather than fight constant complaints from homeowners, Arch Coal Inc., the mine's owner, has bought more than half of the 231 houses in Blair through a subsidiary," Loeb wrote. "Vacated and quickly stripped, at least two dozen have been burned down by one or more arso nists." In an April 1998 episode of "Nightline," ABC television newsman Barry Sarifin reported that, "Local residents say there were once 300 houses in Blair. Now, there are 60.

 

"People here say that in the old days, communities turned into ghost towns when the coal ran out. Now, they turn into ghost towns when mountaintop mines move in." In July, the Moores' lawyers deposed Arch Coal land appraiser Ronna Hatfield. She testified that the Dal-Tex mine had lowered property values in Blair and made it more difficult for residents to sell.

 

"Anyone would have to say that market is controlled by the desirability of living in the neighborhood, and the desirability has been diminished," Hatfield said.

 

Arch Coal officials say they paid Blair residents fair market value for their homes. But, for the residents, the deals didn't come without other prices.

 

Residents had to leave their homeplaces - the hollows some of their families had lived in for generations. They also agreed to give up their First Amendment rights to speak out against strip mining. And they agreed that, once they moved, they would never come back.

 

Anyone who sold their homes to the company signed a five-page "Option to Purchase." The document spelled out the terms of the deal.

 

In June, Stephens testified that the company never bought, and would not have bought, property from anyone in Blair who wouldn't sign the agreement.

 

Residents who signed it agreed that they "will withdraw any permit protests or citizen complaints which [they] may have filed related to the mining permits or applications for such permits of Dal-Tex Coal Corporation and that [they] will not file any further permit protests or citizen complaints in the future." Company officials wanted to have any record of complaints about Dal-Tex removed from public records, Stephens said.

 

"If you have got a person on the complaint list, it is better for future permits to get them, to satisfy their complaint, to take care of their complaint," he said.

 

Land agents provided residents whose property they purchased with a form letter to send to the DEP. The letter asked DEP to drop any protests or complaints the residents filed.

 

Anyone who signed the option to purchase also promised they would never relocate or buy property along Spruce Fork, the main stream through Blair, or along a dozen smaller tributaries, meaning they could not live in or buy property in Logan County communities including Clothier, Sharples, Blair and Kelly.

 

"If we buy somebody in Blair, obviously we don't want them moving back to Blair," land agent Ron Vermillion testified. "We wouldn't buy them in the first place if they were going to move right back to Blair." Stephens testified it was his idea to include the relocation language in the options to purchase.

 

"The problem is you [re]locate one person and he moves right back in eventually you end up buying them twice," he said.

 

Irons testified, "That's the primary reason that we don't want anybody back in there is because citizens have the right to protest mining permits. Some citizens protest whether they are impacted or not." In July, lawyers for the Moores questioned Donald Mueller, a real estate expert hired by Arch Coal to testify as a company expert witness if the family's lawsuit went to trial.

 

Under oath, Mueller expressed reservations about the relocation restriction in the company's option to purchase.

 

Mueller testified that he did not believe the restriction could be enforced. He said that, as a real estate professional, he would have ethical problems asking anyone to sign such a restriction.

 

"I have seen some funky deed provisions at times, but never something in a contract like that," Mueller said. "I don't think it does prohibit anyone from purchasing property in that area. I don't think you can take that right away from someone.

 

"It's like putting in a deed restriction that if you are black, you can't live in this property, or whatever."


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