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Corps invites parties' input on mining at Blair Mountain

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may include groups such as the Friends of Blair Mountain and the United Mine Workers of America in its efforts to develop an agreement about mining on the historic Blair Mountain Battlefield.

The Corps of Engineers released a public notice Friday that seeks to "identify consulting parties" who might want to help decide the future of the historic property.

Any organization that wants to become a consulting party must submit a written request to the Corps of Engineers in Huntington by Aug. 11.

Blair Mountain, on the border of Logan and Boone counties, was the site of the largest armed conflict in American labor history. Between Aug. 25 and Sept. 2, 1921, more than 10,000 union coal miners fought armed coal company guards, a battle that ended only after federal troops intervened.

Mari-Lynn Evans, a leader of Friends of Blair Mountain, said Monday her group had just received the notice of the "programmatic agreement," which allows the group to "follow through on our discussions about how to preserve Blair Mountain."

"This is really historic. There is an opportunity to preserve Blair Mountain and to do it cooperatively. As West Virginians, we have an obligation not only to preserve that place that means so much to all of us, but also to create economic development down there.

"This is the first time the Corps of Engineers has ever issued a programmatic agreement in this district," Evans said.

Raamie Barker, senior adviser to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said Monday, "This is a legal step to bring both sides together to preserve the part of the mountain. We just worked in helping to bring them together. We are not in the negotiations ourselves. They have been working toward the programmatic agreement."

Barker believes the Corps of Engineers' announcement is "very important to what has been going on. It could be a milestone. Even the coal operators believe Blair Mountain should be preserved. The issue is how much land should the companies literally give away. I think it is a big deal."

In its "public notice," the Corps said its "programmatic agreement" would be limited to the regulatory authority it has under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and the Clean Water Act.

Three companies have already filed applications to be involved in helping the Corps create the programmatic agreement: Aracoma Coal Co., a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources; Mingo Logan Coal Co., a subsidiary of Arch Coal; and Western Pocahontas Properties.

Alpha and Arch are the two companies already mining coal in areas near Blair Mountain. Western Pocahontas Properties, a major landholder in Southern West Virginia, owns the property. WPP is a subsidiary of Natural Resource Partners, based in Houston.

The Corps of Engineers' notice states, "The Blair Mountain Battlefield is an approximate 1,700-acre district located in Logan County. ... The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places has determined the Blair Mountain Battlefield is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places."

Evans said, "This is historic. We look forward to having meetings with the companies and other stakeholders about how to resolve the preservation of Blair Mountain."

Phil Smith, a UMW spokesman, said union President Cecil Roberts was not available to comment Monday because he was negotiating with Patriot Coal about changes to the union's contract after the company's bankruptcy.

The UMW, Smith said, has not yet filed a formal application to be a "consulting party" in Corps efforts to reach a programmatic agreement about Blair Mountain.

Joe Stanley, a retired union coal miner who works with Friends of Blair Mountain, believes an agreement among all parties is possible.

"We have really made a lot of efforts to find out what everybody's position is," he said. "We have met with the State Historic Preservation Office, with Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, with Raamie Barker, with people from coal companies."

Stanley said that if the battlefield could be preserved, "we would be in agreement with the coal companies to go ahead with mining that would not affect the battlefield."

Evans believes the programmatic agreement will bring a "unique opportunity for us all to work cooperatively to see the preservation of Blair Mountain and the economic development of that community."

Friends of Blair Mountain has already developed a proposal for various activities on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail and other tourism attractions in the area.

"We have also developed a proposal for Blair Mountain to be turned into a state park," Evans said. "The community is a major concern, not only to preserve Blair Mountain, but also to counter problems people suffer economically.

"Blair Mountain is an important part of history. It should be something that people throughout the country appreciate for its historical significance."

Other groups that have worked to preserve Blair Mountain include the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Labor History Association and National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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