From Pick and Shovel to Mountaintop Removal: Environmental Injustice in the Appalachian Coalfields
WVU College of Law
In this Essay, Professor McGinley examines a century of conflicts between the coal mining industry and the people of the "billion dollar coalfield" communities of southern West Virginia whose labors provided fuel for the industrial revolution, two world wars, and the energy demands of the nation.
The Essay identifies a troubling paradox Highly efficient new mining technologies, including so-called "mountaintop removal" strip mining, have resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of well paying jobs while coal production has reached record levels and many coalfield communities remain mired in economic stagnation and poverty.
The Essay identifies provisions of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) that require commercial, residential, and industrial development as a prerequisite to permitting the radical alteration of the environment occasioned by mountaintop removal mining Professor McGinley makes the case that government regulators missed the opportunity to bring permanent economic benefits to coalfield communities by refusing to enforce this economic development mandate of SMCRA. Instead, the Essay contends, regulators often choose to align themselves with coal industry interests while turning a blind eye to the adverse environmental impacts and property damage visited by mountaintop removal and other modern mining methods on those who still live in the old company towns or "coal camps" of the region.
The Essay exposes the plan and motive of some coal companies to target for extinction some communities located near modern large-scale mining operations. The plan was simple-conduct high intensity mining operations in close proximity to remote communities. When the nuisance conditions created by the mining became difficult to bear, the belief was that those affected would choose to sell out to the coal companies and move away from communities that had been family homeplaces for decades. In at least one area, a major national coal company conditioned its purchase of such homes on the sellers' agreement to move away and never return to the area for the rest of their lives.
The Essay concludes by identifying a movement among some influential West Virginia interests "to let natural selection play out" In synch with the coal companies' desire to eliminate rural coalfield communities near mountaintop removal mines, this Darwinian view envisions nonviable communities becoming 'ghost towns." The conclusion observes that the century-long struggle of coalfield communities for environmental, economic, and social justice is likely to continue and that those who would destroy these communities in the name of eliminating "rural sprawl" or maximizing profits may be surprised at their resilience. Steeled by a century of oppression, the Essay suggests that the people of coalfield communities are likely to fight back.
Original Publication Title
Digital Commons Citation
McGinley, Patrick C., "From Pick and Shovel to Mountaintop Removal: Environmental Injustice in the Appalachian Coalfields" (2004). Law Faculty Scholarship. 79.
34 Envtl L. 21 (2004)
This article is included in the Research Repository @ WVU with the permission of Environmental Law. This article was first published in Environmental Law.