Let's talk about property and violence
West Virginia Gazette
June 02, 2005
Coal companies trample on public, private property
In an Associated Press story that appeared in the May 24
Gazette, John Snider, vice president for External Affairs
for Arch Coal, Inc., said that trespassing constitutes an
act of violence. Fearing protests against mountaintop removal
mine sites this summer, he suggested that protesters coming
onto private property are committing a violent act.
Property rights are one of the
more absurd ways the coal industry tries to explain mountaintop
removal. Coal companies cannot justify mountaintop
removal in any ethically or socially sane way, so they turn
to property rights. A coal company invoking property rights
is like the little boy who takes his ball and goes home because
he is afraid of losing.
So, let’s talk about property and violence.
This is an example of a "mitigated
For this argument alone, I’ll
concede that coal companies have the right to lease land and
remove coal using methods approved by state and federal regulations.
But the streams affected by valley fills — even
the little ones the industry insists aren’t streams
at all — belong to the citizens of West Virginia.
They are common property. The coal industry has buried well
over 1,000 miles of West Virginia public property under valley
fills. On down the line, streams become filled with silt,
also former coal company property. Everyone would love for
companies to keep that property to themselves. For their part,
Arch Coal subsidiaries have more than 50,000 acres under surface
mine permits, according to the West Virginia Department of
Environmental Protection. That’s more than 78 square
miles. Arch-owned Catenary Coal and Hobet Mining are the state’s
two largest surface mines.
Roads also belong to the citizens.
But across Southern West Virginia, gates block access to roads
that still appear on Department of Highways maps. Even now
companies, including Arch, are actively seeking abandonment
of roads near mountaintop removal sites. Those miles, too,
are lost public property.
After the flood in Mingo County, June
Mountaintop removal doesn’t
just affect public lands. Retired coal miner Joe
Barnette of Artie has made repeated structural repairs —
foundation, roof and interior walls — on his home that
is only 15 years old. Over Barnette’s protests, coal
company officials maintaining the valley fill and sediment
ponds routinely cut the curve in front of his house, visibly
eroding more of his private property. None of these problems
occurred before a coal company began mountaintop removal within
sight of Barnette’s home in 1996.
Five times since then, but never before, the creek and road
(both property of West Virginia), along with Barnette’s
yard (private property), flooded and filled with debris. The
debris used to be a coal company’s private property.
There are fancy legal ways to
deny that flood debris actually came from a mine site to avoid
liability for damages. After the 2001 flood in Dorothy,
DEP inspectors issued an emergency cessation order against
the Princess Beverly mine because the stream of debris led
directly to the toe of its eroded valley fill and clogged
sediment ponds. The Surface Mine Board vacated that order
because the storm exceeded the required design criteria of
the valley fill. The fill was only required to withstand a
10-year storm — a storm the intensity of which can be
expected once every 10 years, on average. Just how long are
valley fills expected to remain in place? Can citizens of
West Virginia expect valley fills to be removed and streams
(public property) returned after only 10 years?
Despite the legal acrobatics, anyone who wants to see it
can trace a direct and continuous line of mining debris back
to the valley fill and sediment pond from whence it came.
I’ve done it several times, at least once at an Arch
mine. Forgive me for trespassing.
These were once the lush life sustaining
mountains of Appalachia.
Finally, to call trespassing
an act of violence is obscene, given the graphic violence
the coal industry practices in the course of conducting business.
According to the Institute of Makers of Explosives,
the coal industry consumed 67 percent of the explosives purchased
nationwide in 2003, the most recent year for which information
is available. West Virginia consumed 332,000 metric tons —
more than any other state. If mines blast about 250 days a
year, that works out to about three million pounds of explosives
used in West Virginia each day. That is equivalent to 4,636
“bunker buster” bombs, each of which contains
647 explosive pounds. Is this West Virginia or Afghanistan?
The message here
— and it’s not at all hidden — is that coal
company property rights mean more than those of average citizen's
in Southern West Virginia. They have for more than a century.
To review the irony, coal companies trample on citizens’
property rights as a routine business practice. When citizens
complain, coal companies whine about their own property rights.
It seems obvious that citizens would become upset. Can you
blame them? It might be funny, if only it didn’t kill
people. Some trespasses are mighty hard to forgive.
McNeil has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University
of North Carolina. His research in West Virginia’s coalfields
examines grassroots citizen efforts to reform the coal industry.
He is a native of West Virginia and coal miner’s grandson.
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