How to Save a Mountain in Kentucky 5.19.1999

How to Save a Mountain in Kentucky 5.19.1999


and a little child shall lead them
………by Michael Downs

Add one part fatal typo, one part dedicated and knowledgeable activist group, and one part inspired school children: yields one relatively intact mountain ecosystem.

With the recently announced tentative agreement between anti-strip mining group Kentuckians For The Common Wealth, and the coal companies operating on Harlan County’s Black Mountain, a new atmosphere of optimism surrounds preservation ideals for Eastern Kentucky’s landscape.

“It symbolizes the growing interest in the Appalachian region to try and play a larger role in the use of the land and how that use affects their economic development,” said Ronald Eller, director of UK’s Appalachian Center, a public policy research center focusing on regional development issues.

The Kids Are All Right
Part of what has made the issue so successful is its appeal to such a wide range of people. One group that has given a great deal of support is the youth of Harlan County.

“Nobody is going to get jobs from this,” says KFTC member Danielle Burke, referring to Jericol’s petition to expand it strip mining permit.

A 17-year-old student at Everest High School in Harlan County, Burke represents an important aspect of the attempts to preserve Black Mountain.

Last summer, Burke participated in a film making program for high school students at Appalshop, a media education institution in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Maureen Mullinax, director of the program, said that although they did not specifically plan to focus on Black Mountain, but students became more aware of it as they became more aware of the communities around them.

“It became more of an issue as they [the participants] focused more on their community and their heritage,” Mullinax said.

Burke has used her skills to make a short film documentary of strip mining on Black Mountain, which has been show in a number of Harlan County schools, and has also be used by KFTC in presentations. She also teaches film making at Everest High School.

Burke said that, although some people have become upset by the controversy, that attempts to preserve Black Mountain have had a positive effect on Harlan County.

“It has brought the community together to fight something that shouldn’t exist,” Burke said.

Burke said that some members of the community have become upset with her because of her outspokenness, but that it wouldn’t prevent her from doing what is she feels is right.

“They believe what they believe, I believe what I believe,” Burke said.

Student involvement has not been limited to high school students. Some of the most outspoken voices came from a younger group of students at Wallins Elementary and Junior High School. Judy Bryson, a science teacher at Wallins, began discussing the issue of Black Mountain with her classes as part of the curriculum for ecology and environmental education.

Bryson said that, when the children learned that a portion of their county contained rare plants and animals that occurred no where else in the state, that they became excited about the issue of the mountain. The sense of pride that the students gained caused them to

be concerned about the welfare of the mountain and the life it supports.

After one student wrote a letter describing her concerns about mining on Black Mountain, the rest of her classes wanted to do the same. The students said they did not know who to send them to, so Bryson did a little research. She discovered that the appropriate recipient of such documents was the Office of Surface Mining.

“We took four bus loads of kids and hand delivered the letters to the Office of Surface Mining in Middlesboro, Kentucky,” Bryson said. She said the visit was unannounced.

“It may have been a mistake,” Bryson added. Bryson said that the personnel at the OSM were very pleasant, accepted the children’s letters graciously and even gave a presentation to the children.

“They could have run and hid,” Bryson said humorously. Understandably the event got a lot of attention, and was even covered by the Associated Press. Bryson also said that some members of the community disapproved of the students’ involvement in the issue.

“I’ve been accused of having a political agenda,” Bryson said. She said that the disapproval gave the students a chance to examine their actions, it term of exercising their first amendment rights.

“The kids had to look at what they’d done, and determine if they done anything wrong.” Bryson said,” What they found out is they had acted responsibly, not only as students, but as citizens of this country.”

When O’Hara paid the students a visit, they were well prepared to discuss what was on their minds.

“I don’t think he expected them to be as well informed as they were,” Bryson said.

She said that O’Hara began his presentation with a model of Black Mountain and asked the students how many of them thought the issues surrounding Black Mountain were about mountain top removal. None of the students raised their hands.

“I kind of think that shot his presentation in the head,” Bryson said. The children’s’ involvement benefited not only efforts to save Black Mountain, but also the children themselves, says Bryson. The experience taught them both about the value of their homeland, but also how to speak out about the things that were important to them.

The press release announcing the agreement between KFTC and the coal companies was held at the Wallins school, where Short was quoted by the Harlan Daily Enterprise as saying “These kids have saved the highest point in Kentucky. It started here and I think it’s fitting that it ends here. As of today, you students have a victory under your belts because of your determination.”


A Long Hard Year
The announcement of the agreement signals a possible end to the saga of Black Mountain, which has been the state’s most celebrated environmental issue for the past year.

KFTC is holding talks with engineers from Jericol Mining about improvements on environmental controls on some of existing mines. After the two come to an understanding about how to best control water quality near the mines, KFTC, the coal companies and the state can proceed with negotiations for the state to acquire remaining mineral and timber rights at the top of Back Mountain.

At 4139 feet, the summit of Black Mountain is the highest point in the state of Kentucky. The high elevation allows for certain temperature changes that supports an ecosystem unlike any other in the state. The mountain is also believed to be home to several endangered species of plants and animals.

Because of this unique ecology, concerns about Black Mountain have long predated the relatively recent attention, but reached critical mass last fall when KFTC reviewed Jericol’s application for an amendment to an existing mining permit.

Technically, Jericol’s permit is still pending until pending until they formalize their agreement with KFTC and the state. If granted, it would allow for four additional miles of surface mining near the summit of the mountain. Although KFTC members had previously been seeking a more diplomatic means to limit surface mining, the proposed strip expansion convinced them to file a Lands Unsuitable For Mining Petition.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of choice.” said Tom Fitzgerald, the attorney representing KFTC,” When they filed for four more miles of bench [strip], there was no way that my clients could let that go through.”

Besides calling for a large expansion of existing strip mining, the Jericol’s application had another component that signaled trouble like a red flag. The cover letter mentioned mountain-top removal mining as a form of mining to be covered by the application.

Fitzgerald said that Jericol had most likely made a mistake when it used the term mountain-top removal, and probably meant to say point removal. Point removal is a form of surface mining similar to MTR, except that it removes points other that the summit of the mountain.

“Given current economics, it [MTR] is not cost effective at this time.” Fitzgerald said, but added, “In the future it may become economically feasible to mountain top mine, and that was a concern or ours.”

Although MTR was mentioned no where else in the application, the slightest indication that someone might plan to scalp Kentucky’s highest peak was enough to incite outrage from not only KFTC, but citizens and groups across the state.

When asked why the Sierra Club had chosen to back KFTC’s petition, Oscar Geralds, member and past chairman of the club, responded matter of factly, as if the evidence speaks for itself. “The gall of someone to take the top of Black Mountain.” Gerald’s said, “It [preserving Black Mountain] has been a state issue for years. It’s got everybody upset.”

This probable misprint was a major PR blow for the coal industry in Harlan Co., sending it into a spin from which it could never quite recover. News that Jericol was planning to begin MTR spread swiftly across the state.


A plan by a private corporation to cut the top off the highest point in Kentucky was an issue that citizens across the state could identify with, even if they had never given strip mining a second thought before. And even if MTR was not really going to happen.

Ironically, KFTC’s petition made a similar mistake of language. The petition called for the upper elevations of Black Mountain to be off limits to not only surface mining, but the surface effects of underground mining.

This detail was pounced upon by Arch Coal representative John O’Hara. The Harlan Daily Enterprise quoted O’Hara telling the Benham, Lynch and Cumberland city councils that this would prevent all forms of mining on Black Mountain, due to the way the mountains sink, or subside after underground mines are completed.

O’Hara’s told the councils that KFTC’s petition would result in severe job loss for Harlan County residents, as well as loss of significant county revenue form decreased coal severance tax.

O’Hara convinced all three councils to rescind their support of KFTC’s petition. Although it did not cripple efforts to preserve the environment of Black Mountain, it did cause KFTC to check its PR strategies and address the very realistic concern of how the petition

might affect the economy of Harlan County. Shortly after O’Hara began his tour of Harlan County, it seems that KFTC and the coal companies began to understand that wrestling for

public support would drain the energy of both. They agreed to suspend communication with the press in order to negotiate on a possible compromise that would protect both the environment and the industry

The willingness of the coal companies to enter into negotiations indicated that they came to take KFTC’s petition, as well as the public support it was gathering across the state very seriously.

The importance of the mountain landscape to the identity to Eastern Kentucky communities can hardly be separated from the role of the coal industry in that same identity. Like tobacco farming is as much a way of life to Central Kentucky residents as it is a source of income, coal mining is an important part of Harlan County’s heritage.

“Coal mining is what we are all about,” said Bobbie Gothard, a resident of Harlan County for more than fifty years and curator for the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum.

Gothard said that the coal companies provide an important industry for Harlan County, as well as helping the communities in other ways such as plowing snow when the towns can not do it themselves, and donating land and buildings to the county.

“I’d hate to see them [coal companies] leave because it is our livelihood.” said Bobbie Gothard, a lifetime resident of Harlan County,

“I’d also hate to see the mountain destroyed.”

Gothard is also a member of Hands Across the Mountain, a group composed of citizens from both the Kentucky and Virginia side of the Black Mountain dedicated to promoting tourism in the area. She said that coal mining is not incompatible with the development of a tourism industry in Harlan County because people come expecting to visit a mining community.

“I think most people connect us with coal mining,” Gothard said. Tourism is a source of income that is frequently discussed by those examining ways to diversify the economy of Harlan County and other Appalachian communities. Proponents of tourism point to the wide range of visitors the mountain communities can appeal to; outdoor recreation seekers, historians and people who come to the area to visit their heritage.

Eller agrees that tourism is an important option for Harlan County but says that destruction of the landscape through surface mining could result in limiting tourism opportunities for the future.

“The question is do we destroy the environment for the short term and destroy options for long term development.” Eller said, “The battle taking place in Harlan County is very much a battle of the future versus the present.”

Eller said that the question of preserving or striping Black Mountain is not simply an environmental issue, but very much an economic issue as well. Since WWII, rapid mechanization of the coal industry has displaced a large number of workers in the coal industry. The advent of surface mining only exacerbated the job loss.

By seeking to preserve the mountains which could help to develop a tourism industry, and by limiting mining to underground operations which employ more people, Eller says that KFTC’s petition protects not only the environment but economic opportunities as well.


The Mountain Stands
Although KFTC’s petition hearing has been rescheduled for June 3, negotiators are keeping their fingers crossed that it will not have to be held. If the agreement is finalized before then, it can be formalized in a contract which KFTC member Roy Silver says will be superior to a petition because it will no be subject to challenge.

“This is a contract between us and the companies, which means that it will have more teeth than existing law.”

The agreement allows the state to purchase rights to coal and timber on the upper levels of the mountain, as well as stipulating a timber “conservation easement” between the 3000 and 3600 ft elevations, where timber will be harvested only in a sustainable manner.

It is more than anyone could have expected. The agreement protects Black Mountain from not only mining, but also logging as well, which KFTC’s petition had no control over.

Funds to acquire timber and coal rights will be drawn in part from the Heritage Land Conservation Fund. Hugh Archer, a board member for the fund, described the

settlement as “a win-win situation.” “A lot of companies are not asking for everything, they just want to get out of the newspapers.”

It seems as if the pens are even mightier than the bulldozers and chainsaws.




Kentuckians For The Commonwealth
The Harlan County chapter of KFTC reformed last year to deal specifically with Black Mountain. The group provided an umbrella organization for all those who wanted to confront strip mining, and a name under which to file the Lands Unsuitable For Mining Petition.


Kentucky Resource Council
A non-profit environmental advocacy group, KRC was founded 14 years ago to give free legal aid on water, waste and air issues. KRC attorney Tom Fitzgerald represented KFTC in filing their petition, negotiating with coal company representatives and contacting state agencies for preservation fund sources.

Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet
A division of Kentucky’s Office of Surface Mining, the Cabinet was responsible for reviewing KFTC petition. They had determined the petition complete and were awaiting the petition hearing, an open floor discussion for all those who wanted to comment on the petition. Cabinet spokesperson Mark York said that since 1983, 16 LUM petitions have been filed with the OSM, only two of which have been granted.

Heritage Land Conservation Fund
The first state agency to volunteer money to buy out resource rights on Black Mountain. Board member Hugh Archer said that they had been interested in preserving Black Mountain for quite some time, but never had an opening before. Archer admits that the budget of the fund, at about two million dollars a year, is quite limited, but says they will begin discussion with other agencies to come up with the rest of the cash. -MD

What’s the difference?
KFTC has dropped their Lands Unsuitable for Mining petition in favor of a contractual agreement with the coal companies operating on the upper levels of Black Mountain. Although the petition and the agreement share much in common, there are some differences between the two.

Filed on Dec. 10, 1998, the petition requested all land on Black Mountain above 3000 feet be declared off limits to mining as well as “the surface effects of underground mining”. The April 16 agreement states that coal companies will sell or donate, to the state, their rights to unmined coal reserves above 3000 feet, as well as timber rights above 3600. Between 3000 and 3600 feet, timber will only be harvested in a sustainable manner. The agreement also allows access to the protected area for state agencies and universities.

Although KFTC and other activists see the agreement as a major victory because it protects the mountain from logging as well as strip mining, it is also a beneficial solution for the companies as well. Unlike the petition, the agreement provides for the coal and timber companies to receive compensation for the resource rights they forfeit to the state. Also, the agreement specifies that it does not effect the “surface effects of underground mining,” a major sticking point of the original petition. Preservationists get their mountaintop and the coal companies get paid for minerals they do not even have to strip mine. –MD

Strip vs. Deep Mining
“They [KFTC] are not opposed to deep mining in the mountains, they are opposed to surface mining.” Eller said, “It not only has a tremendous environmental impact, it takes jobs away from the traditional mining industry.”

Others in Harlan County agree that strip mining will not provide jobs for county residents.

“A contractor is not going to go to the Harlan County job office and say ‘I need ten men to run heavy machinery’.” said Gary Short, resident of Harlan County and member of KFTC, “He’s going to bring those men with him and that’s just common sense.”

Short grew up in Harlan County and then moved to Michigan. He said that he returned to Harlan County because of the connection he feels to the landscape and the community.

“You never get the mountains out of your system,” Short said.

Short lives just at the foot of Black Mountain, an environment which he describes as a “breath of fresh air.” He says that he has been personally disaffected by the mining industry through the loss of three wells and fractures in the foundation of his home.

Despite difficulties with the mining industry, Short says that he does not oppose deep mining, only surface mining in all its forms. Short says that surface mining is responsible for lack of declining job opportunities in Harlan County’s coal industry.

The detriments of strip mining to jobs in Harlan County are echoed by other members of KFTC. -MD