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UMW taking up mountaintop fight?

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.

Smith started the exercise, saying he wanted to see someone elected to the White House who would care about working people in Appalachia. Everyone agreed.

Then, Sierra Club organizer Bill Price advocated "environmental protection and sustainability in the coalfields of Appalachia." Again, support was unanimous.

Finally, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Vice President Julian Martin threw down the gauntlet. He said his only real priority was to "end mountaintop removal."

"All of these other things are fine goals," Martin said, "but if we can't save the Appalachian mountains, the rest of the country better watch out."

Smith shocked most of the room. He declined to veto Martin's proposal.

"I don't think we have a problem with the concept of ending mountaintop removal," Smith said. "If he had said end mountaintop removal tomorrow, I think we would have had a problem with it."

Smith said the UMW would continue to support its members who are currently working on strip mines. The union is also actively trying to organize existing nonunion strip jobs, Smith said.

"If there were suddenly 5,000 UMW jobs in mountaintop removal instead of 500, there would be a political element within the union to deal with that," Smith said. "President Roberts and the union can't pick and choose which workers to represent and which not to represent."

'No, no and hell no'

In late 1998, the UMW's Roberts spoke out for tougher regulation of mountaintop removal when then-Gov. Cecil Underwood had a task force examine the issue.

Coalfield residents needed more protection from blasting, Roberts said. Mine operators should be forced to plan long-term economic development projects on land they flatten, he said.

But within months, the late U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked a new permit for Arch Coal's Dal-Tex Mine in Logan County. About 400 UMW members would lose their jobs.

Roberts went on the offensive, blasting "environmental extremists" during a U.S. Senate hearing and leading a boisterous rally in front of the state Capitol.

"You can't say don't burn it in Washington and don't mine it in West Virginia and say you're not trying to take the jobs of every coal miner in the United States," Roberts shouted at the rally. "And I'm here to say no, no and hell no."

After Haden's decision was overturned, environmental group lawyers picked their targets more carefully. Later lawsuits were aimed at nonunion mines, frequently those operated by the UMW's long-standing adversary, Massey Energy.

But last year, a unionized mine in Logan County got caught up in another case pending before U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin. The UMW worried that more than 200 of its members would lose their jobs if Goodwin blocked a new permit for Magnum Coal's Guyan Surface Mine east of Logan.

Environmentalists dropped that part of their lawsuit when they learned the company had already buried a stream at the site, but not before the union and its backers hosted another high-profile rally that drew Gov. Joe Manchin as its featured speaker.

Smith said last week that his comments at the Appalachian Studies conference were, as much as anything, an effort to find some common ground. If he would have vetoed the proposed mountaintop removal ban, Smith said, the conversation would have ended right there.

"We were building an agenda for future discussions," Smith said. "We have always held the position that this issue is an important issue for all of the people who live in those communities, and it's important to talk about."


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