Court: Greens can sue to protect coal labor battle site

A coalition of environmental groups may sue to force the government to place historic preservation protections on the site of a violent coal labor battle in West Virginia, a federal court ruled Tuesday.

The Sierra Club and its allies want the Interior Department to designate the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain to protect it from mountaintop-removal mining.

Tuesday’s decision is far from a complete victory for the Sierra Club. The court only decided that the group has the standing to sue and did not decide on the merits of the underlying challenge.

The Interior Department briefly listed the Blair Mountain site on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, which imposes various protections against development. It reversed course shortly thereafter, because the agency failed to account for the coal mining companies that own large tracts of the site in determining landowners’ objections.

The Tuesday ruling by the District of Columbia Circuit Court reversed a lower court's ruling that the environmental groups lacked standing. Two of the three judges concluded that the green groups’ members could suffer if mountaintop-removal mining took place on the site and that a historic listing could mitigate that harm.

“Coalition members who view and enjoy the battlefield’s aesthetic features, or who observe it for purposes of studying and appreciating its history, would suffer a concrete and particularized injury from the conduct of surface mining on the battlefield,” the judges wrote.

The court found that even if environmentalists are not allowed onto the battle site, they would still suffer from its destruction.

The judges also concluded that, because companies already have permits to mine at the site, there is a real harm that a listing could stop.

“The coal companies ... assert an expectation that they would mine in the Battlefield under the permits,” they wrote.

The Sierra Club said the ruling reaffirms the importance of protecting the site.

“Blair Mountain is an asset to the people of Appalachia. It must not be destroyed,” Bill Price, the group’s organizing representative for West Virginia, said in a statement. “This decision brings us one major step close to preserving our history.” 

The battle, in August and September 1921, remains the largest labor battle in the history of the country, and it was the largest armed conflict since the Civil War.

About 10,000 striking coal miners, seeking union rights, fought about 3,000 law enforcement and military personnel for a week. The miners lost.