Originally published on April 8, 2008
HUNTINGTON - The United Mine Workers union would not oppose a ban on mountaintop removal as a "long-term goal" for Appalachia, a union spokesman says.
Only a handful of mountaintop removal operations are unionized. Union officials don't want to abandon those UMW members.
But union officials say they understand that local residents have serious concerns about mountaintop removal's impacts, and the UMW is willing to talk with coalfield citizens who are working to try to abolish the practice.
"As a long-term goal, I don't think we would be opposed to that," said Phil Smith, communications director for the union and chief spokesman for UMW President Cecil Roberts.
"This is something we ought to be talking about," Smith said. "This is an agenda for future discussions."
Historically, the UMW's position on strip mining has been mixed.
As early as the mid-1950s, legendary UMW President John L. Lewis spoke out against a proposal to strip mine 4,700 acres of Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest, then known as the Cumberland National Forest.
During the push for federal regulation of strip mining, the UMW went back and forth. Eventually, the union opposed federal rules in favor of state-by-state enforcement.
Historian Chad Montrie, who wrote a book about opposition to strip mining, said UMW officials became proponents of mining rules "primarily out of fear that growing opposition might accomplish a ban, at least on contour stripping in Appalachia."
"Prompted by this fear, the union's position on legislative controls was a difficult balancing act of short-term economic and long-term environmental interests," Montrie wrote.
Today, underground mines still produce more than half of West Virginia's coal. Coal produced by UMW members accounts for about 44 percent of the state's underground production, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.
But surface mine production has increased by nearly 25 percent over the last decade, to 68 million tons last year, according to the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.
In 1998, strip mines accounted for 30 percent of West Virginia's production. Last year, they produced 43 percent of the state's coal, records show.
Only seven of the state's 94 active surface mines in 2006 were unionized, according to DOE data. Just two of the state's 10 largest strip mines employ UMW members working under a union contract, the data shows.
Statewide, unionized strip mines account for 760 of West Virginia's 5,400 strip-mining jobs, according to government data. That's about 14 percent. Unionized strip mines account for 13 percent of the state's surface coal production, data shows.
Looking for common ground
Smith first revealed the union's new stance during a panel discussion at the Appalachian Studies Association annual meeting at Marshall University on March 29.
Smith took part in a panel exercise meant to find common ground among labor officials, environmental activists and community organizers from across Appalachia.
Wess Harris, an author and activist, went around the room, asking participants to name one goal they have for the region. Other participants could then agree, veto the goal, or suggest changes to try to reach a compromise position.