Blowing away King Coal

Can a scrawny young wind-power activist topple the biggest, dirtiest industry in West Virginia?

Published January 29, 2009 11:23AM (EST)

On Jan. 16, as Barack Obama visited a wind turbine factory in Ohio, Rory McIlmoil snaked along a muddy mountain road in West Virginia on a similar mission. He was headed up Coal River Mountain, the last mountain left untouched in a historic range ravaged by strip mining.

On a ridge, the 28-year-old activist brought his four-wheeler to a skid. He couldn't believe what he saw. Bulldozers had begun clearing the site for the first phase of a mountaintop removal operation, a radical strip-mining process that would clear-cut 6,600 acres of hardwood trees, detonate thousands of tons of explosives and topple the mountain range into the valley. A 100-foot swath of forest just below the ridge lay like an open wound.

For McIlmoil, this should have been ground zero in Obama's green recovery plan. Not a future wasteland.

Just last spring, McIlmoil had climbed this same ridge, looked out over a breathtaking quilt of lush forests, and envisioned an industrial wind farm. With boundless enthusiasm for alternative energy, he soon began to draft a proposal. As the year wore on, he showed, here in the deep heart of coal country, that a row of whirling wind turbines could produce enough megawatts to serve the entire region, provide hundreds of clean energy jobs and generate significantly more tax revenues than the mountaintop removal operation.

With his ruddy good looks and the deep cracker barrel voice of a young Johnny Cash, McIlmoil emerged as a champion of clean energy and green jobs in West Virginia, and around the country. Joining forces with the Coal River Mountain Watch, a tenacious group of coal mining families and environmentalists, he helped launch the Coal River Wind Project as a breakthrough initiative to transcend the century-old stranglehold by the state's politically powerful coal industry.

"The benefits of economic diversification, new safe jobs and reducing CO2 emissions are important," McIlmoil says. "But for most residents, if a wind farm is what it takes to save their mountain, then they're all for it."

After witnessing 470 mountains in central Appalachia get blown to bits by strip mining, the Coal River wind proponents were drawing a line in the sand. The verdict was in on mountaintop removal, which had been launched in 1970 as a quick and dirty option to cheaply procure coal. Thirty-eight years and a million and a half acres of destroyed hardwood forests later, mountaintop removal had run its course in the region with appalling effects. It had not only destroyed the natural heritage, it had ripped out the roots of the Appalachian culture and depopulated the historic mountain communities in the process.

Over 1,200 miles of waterways had been sullied and jammed with mining fill. Blasting and coal dust had made life unbearable for anyone in the strip-mined areas. Wells had been busted and polluted with toxic waste. Given the mechanization of aboveground mountaintop removal, and its shakedown of a diversified economy, coal mining jobs had plummeted as poverty rates rose in strip-mining areas.

In December, West Virginians saw what happened at a Tennessee power plant. A restraining wall burst and a billion gallons of coal ash poured out of a pond and deluged 400 acres of land in 6 feet of sludge. The proposed mountaintop removal site on Coal River Mountain rested beside a 6 billion-gallon toxic coal waste sludge dam above underground mines. If the proposed blasting took place, a fracture along the sludge lake could be catastrophic for the communities downstream.

The residents asked: Why should Coal River Mountain be the last mountain to die for a mistake?

In West Virginia, turning around the 200-year-old colossus King Coal is tantamount to blasphemy for many. Second only to the state of Wyoming, West Virginia produced 158 million tons of coal in 2007 and generated $338 million in severance taxes. In a nation that still depends on coal for more than 50 percent of our electricity, West Virginia plays a key role in keeping on the lights. The Marfork Coal Co., a subsidiary of the Virginia-based Massey Energy, the largest coal company in West Virginia and fourth largest in the nation, remains a major force in the state's economy and politics.

"When you look into the climate implications of coal, you realize that Rory and the Coal River group are at the forefront of an important struggle," says filmmaker Adams Wood, who has been following the events at Coal River Mountain for a documentary, "On Coal River." "He is taking on an enormously powerful industry and doing it with extremely limited resources and mostly on-the-job training."

McIlmoil's scrawny frame begs a David comparison to the coal companies' Goliath. He grew up in suburban Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., raised by a single mother, with the dream of playing professional baseball. During his freshman year in college, an eye-opening trip to Mount St. Helens shifted his studies to earth and environmental science. After a post-college stint in Ecuador, studying environmental issues in indigenous mountain communities, McIlmoil moved to Washington, D.C., to study at American University. One day, after hearing a bluegrass jam about the effects of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, he was done for. He never looked back, throwing himself into the nitty-gritty of coal mining analysis.

"The more I learn about the state and coal economy, and the people living in the communities around the mountain, the harder I work," McIlmoil says. "Without a strong legal and political push to upset the status quo, the whole area is doomed to destruction and contamination."

While writing his master's thesis on the impacts of mountaintop removal, McIlmoil jumped at the opportunity for an internship at the North Carolina-based Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization that dealt with mountaintop removal. Soon he began imagining how wind energy could replace coal fields. According to J.W. Randolph, the Washington legislative aide for Appalachian Voices, McIlmoil's timing was impeccable, as the anti-mountaintop removal movement was growing.

"What the movement needed was someone who could speak to the future beyond the coal status quo," Randolph writes in an e-mail. "Legislators, investors and those who work on strip-mines wanted to know what's next. Rory provided that much needed voice that can explain, in excruciating detail, how much benefit we could bring to our region from wind power and alternative energy. He can show people our new Appalachian future and back it up with data three miles long."

Within months of landing at the Coal River Mountain Watch office in Whitesville, W.V., whose mission is to "stop the destruction of our communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, " McIlmoil's sleep-deprived passion for wind energy became famous. Hunched over permit maps and satellite imagery for hours, he meticulously traced the outlines of old strip and mountaintop removal mines on the computer, and analyzed wind farm models. He slept a few nights of the weeks on the couch at the Coal River Mountain Watch office.

"His technical knowledge fits like hands folded in prayer with our local knowledge of the mountains and strip mining," declares Julia Bonds, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch, whose longtime advocacy for social justice in the coal fields was recognized with a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003.

McIlmoil quickly found a partner and co-director of the wind project in Lorelei Scarbro, a coal miner's widow and grandmother whose back fence literally demarcated the front lines of the impending mountaintop removal site. Hired as a community organizer for Coal River Mountain Watch in the fall of 2007, Scarbro has seen hundreds of well-meaning young activists trundle through the area. In her eyes, what McIlmoil lacked in the department of mountain heritage, he made up for in his willingness to listen and understand the local residents in rural Appalachia.

"What we need most are people to stand beside us, not in front of us or behind us," Scarbro says. "My husband, who spent 35 years as an underground union coal miner and died of black lung in 1999, is buried in the family cemetery next door. There is no price you can put on the memories we have here. We have a sense of place here that many people don't know and can't begin to understand. There are many Appalachians who know this sense of place."

McIlmoil has experienced those Appalachians firsthand. "Everybody should know the people living around Coal River Mountain," he says. "They're good, beautiful people, and they have a greater connection to the mountain and their history than I could ever hope to have."

By working with other energy analysts and mining experts, including Appalachian Voices director Matt Wasson and Alliance for Appalachia coordinator Dana Kuhnline, McIlmoil, Scarbro and the Coal River Mountain Watch team member Matt Noerpel drew up a virtual plan for a wind farm on Coal River Mountain. As McIlmoil envisioned it, the wind potential on Coal River Mountain blew away the short-lived economic benefits of the proposed mountaintop removal sites. In fact, coal mining provides only 11 to 13 percent of the economic activity in West Virginia. And the state can use all the economy activity it can get. Forbes recently ranked West Virginia 50th among the best states to do business.

On less than 100 cleared acres across the same mountain range, McIlmoil concluded that the wind farm would create 200 local jobs during construction, and 50 permanent jobs during the life of the wind farm. In the process, it would provide 440MW of electricity, or enough energy for 150,000 homes, and allow for sustainable forestry and mountain tourism projects. The plan also called for a limited amount of underground coal mining.

After the launch of the Coal River Wind Web site and its virtual plan for the valley in April 2008, McIlmoil and Scarbro, along with Noerpel and other members of the Coal River Mountain Watch, spent the next six months going to battle in the community for their plan.

At the wind partners' first local presentation in the Marsh Fork area, only five people showed up. Undaunted, the two held meetings there for several weeks, and began to note that crowds kept getting bigger and more welcoming. On the third meeting, McIlmoil realized the wind plan had taken root in the community when a Massey coal miner listened quietly to the presentation, left the meeting, and then halfway from home, turned back and asked for materials to pass around.

For filmmaker Catherine Pancake, at work on a study chronicling the rise of clean energy, the Coal River Wind Project emerged as a bellwether for renewable energy. "They are showing what happens when citizens with a viable green energy plan come into brutal contact with a multibillion-dollar industry," she says. "Rory and Lorelei are effectively killing the popular and bogus 'jobs vs. the environment' argument used ad infinitum in local and state politics."

Despite the positive receptions by several county and state agencies and public officials, McIlmoil soon learned that the vicelike grip of the coal industry locked down any governmental or legislative support for the wind farm. Marfork Coal Co. simply had no intention of halting its demolition plans on Cold River Mountain. With 19 Appalachian mining operations valued at $2.6 billion in 2008, parent company Massey had demonstrated a merciless coveting for coal at any expense.

In a haunting parallel to the Tennessee coal ash disaster, a Massey subsidiary in eastern Kentucky had been responsible for the largest coal slurry spill in 2000, leaking over 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into the area's waterways and aquifers. Massey's political connections in the Bush administration, however, resulted in a slap-on-the-wrist fine and the firing of one of the industry's veteran whistle-blowers.

Not that Massey altered its policies. By 2008, it had been forced to pay $20 million in penalties for dumping toxic mine waste into the region's waterways; before the year was out, Massey shelled out a record $4.2 million for civil and criminal fines in the death of two coal miners in West Virginia.

So far the coal giant's public comments on the new competition have been relatively innocuous. In a statement e-mailed to the media, Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater declared that his company "supports many forms of energy, including wind energy." Although Massey was perplexed, Gillenwater added, "by the Coal River Mountain Watch's focus on this particular site, to the exclusion of any other."

In the dog days of summer, McIlmoil and Scarbro kept the pressure on. After receiving a grant from the Sierra Club for an in-depth economic study of the wind proposal, McIlmoil and Scarbro made their first presentation to representatives of Gov. Joe Manchin's office. The polite indifference from the pro-coal governor's office didn't surprise them, so they launched a national campaign.

Overwhelmed with supportive calls, national media attention and an online petition calling for the halt of the proposed strip mine and the creation of the wind farm, which topped 10,000 signatures, the Coal River wind advocates received the Building Economic Alternatives Award from Co-op America (now Green America), a nonprofit group devoted to sustainability.

There was no celebration. Days earlier, McIlmoil and Scarbro had read in the local Beckley Register-Herald of Massey's intention to begin blasting on the first area of the strip mine. The company had taken out a classified ad in the newspaper to alert the community. The activists concern at the bold move by Massey turned to outrage when they discovered the coal company lacked certain blasting permits and state-agency approval of the mining plan revision.

Drawing from their growing support across the country, McIlmoil and Scarbro managed to flood Gov. Manchin's and state agency offices with thousands of e-mails and phone calls, resulting in a suspension of any blasting. All eyes were now on the governor to reconsider the economic ramifications of mountaintop removal, and form a commission for renewable energy sources, such as the Coal River wind proposal. It didn't happen. "It would be inappropriate for the governor to interfere in the regulatory process," Manchin's communications director, Lara Ramsburg, said in an e-mail statement to the Charleston Gazette.

On Nov. 20, at the same time Obama announced a forthcoming economic recovery package and clean energy job programs, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, with the approval of Manchin, granted Massey the surface mining permit revision for the initial part of their proposed mountaintop removal of Coal River Mountain.

As a further blow to coal field citizens against mountaintop removal, the Environmental Protection Agency passed an 11th hour ruling in early December that did away with a 25-year tradition to regulate the dumping of coal mining waste into waterways. The ruling effectively cleared the way for Massey, like all other coal companies, to accelerate their assault on the Appalachian Mountains.

"Once the demolition begins," Scarbro declared at a local hearing, "it will be very difficult to stop it, and once the mountain is removed, it won't grow back. The potential for wind energy and good jobs will be gone forever, along with our renewable water and forest resources."

Disheartened but not stymied by the news, the Coal River wind advocates released the results of a four-month economic study by W.V.-based Downstream Strategies. According to the report, the first of its kind in coal country, the proposed wind farm on Coal River Mountain, consisting of 164 wind turbines and generating 328 megawatts of electricity, would provide over $1.74 million in annual property taxes to Raleigh County. By comparison, the coal severance taxes related to the mountaintop removal mining would provide the county with only $36,000 per year. More so, it noted that the coal reserves in the area would only last 17 years at best, compared to the eternal supply of wind.

Today, Coal River Mountain Watch members await a legal challenge to the permit revision at the Surface Mine Board, with a hearing scheduled for Feb. 10. Outside the bounds of West Virginia, their hopes rest with the reversal and enforcement of the EPA's recent stream buffer ruling by the Obama administration, which regulates the strip mining impact on streams, or the passing of federal legislation for a Clean Water Protection Act, effectively banning mountaintop removal methods to dump mining waste into waterways.

In support of Coal River Mountain residents, who are staging a protest this week against the coal companies, James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the nation's foremost expert on climate change, declared: "President Obama, please look at Coal River Mountain. Your strongest supporters are counting on you to stop this madness."

"When I first came here," says McIlmoil, "I was all about just beating Massey and driving a wind turbine into the heart of their territory. But now there are hands and hearts, lives and histories, all holding onto that turbine, and I dream of a day when one of the community folks gets to hit the 'On' switch that turns on the first turbine."

How seriously the nation appreciates the vanguard role of clean energy advocates like McIlmoil will, ultimately, decide whether Coal River Mountain will be the first mountain to resist mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Or the 471st mountain to be eliminated from American maps.

By Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of "In Sardinia: An Unexpected Journey in Italy," among numerous other works of history, journalism and theater.

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