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Comment period for Blair Mountain permit ends Friday

BLAIR, W.Va. -- They've lost at every turn with courts and regulators, but activists trying to protect West Virginia's historic Blair Mountain from strip mining aren't giving up.

Residents, environmentalists, history buffs and others are now fighting the renewal of a mining permit that St. Louis-based Arch Coal is seeking from the state Department of Environmental Protection. The public comment period on the Adkins Fork permit ends Friday.

In 1921, some 10,000 coal miners who had been trying to unionize for years marched to the Southern West Virginia town of Blair and scrambled up the mountain to battle a dug-in army of police and hired guns who had homemade bombs and machine guns. At least 16 men died before the miners surrendered to federal troops in what became the nation's largest armed uprising since the Civil War.

Kenneth King, a Blair resident who for decades has tried to preserve the battlefield, said the mining would only add to the cumulative impact on the Spruce Fork watershed, where some 17,000 acres are already permitted or being mined.

"This is going to be a tough campaign against one of the largest coal companies in the world," King said, urging people to stay involved as the fight continues.

A spokeswoman for Arch didn't immediately comment Monday.

Archaeologist Brandon Nida, who said he has found artifacts in the permit area, says the Adkins Fork permit would destroy one of the most important sections of the battlefield.

"We've found ammunition from the miners; we know where they fought and died," he said. "This is some of the most hallowed ground in labor history."

Nida calls the significance of the Battle of Blair Mountain "enormous" for the U.S. labor movement.

It helped the United Mine Workers of America become the backbone of the labor movement, he said, and helped form the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers.

The 1,600-acre battlefield was briefly added to the National Register of Historic Places, and then removed when private property owners objected. Several groups sued to have that status restored but lost their court challenge in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., last month.

It was just the latest of several setbacks.

Last summer, the state Department of Environmental Protection ruled that about 30 percent of the land is exempt from that declaration because it's already covered under mining permits, while other areas are exempt because there is clear evidence of past mining activity.

Extensive mountaintop removal mining around Blair has already driven down the local population. Since the 1990s, the number of residents has dropped from about 700 to 70.


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