Can a Wind Farm Transform Appalachia’s Energy Future?

Chad A. Stevens
In February 2009, two activists hung a banner on an excavator on Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. Several were arrested on trespassing charges.

In Brief

The deep veins of coal in Coal River Mountain, in southern West Virginia, have long attracted the coal industry. In 2006, the mountain became the latest to be slated for mountaintop removal by Massey Energy. In response, local residents and environmental justice activists came up with a plan: in addition to opposing the mining operation, they would offer an alternative energy future for the region, one that would build the local economy and stand as a symbol for America’s transition to a post-carbon era.

In 2006, the firm WindLogics studied Coal River Mountain and found that it could provide another sustainable resource: commercially profitable, clean, renewable wind energy. However, the 6,000 acres of proposed mountaintop removal would eliminate the elevation and stability needed for the wind farm to be feasible, along with the mountain’s water, timber, and other sustainable resources. The Coal River Wind project began in 2008 to promote a wind farm as a viable alternative to the mountaintop removal mines. The group Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) organized local support and commissioned an economic comparison study of the two possibilities. The study concluded that a 328-megawatt wind farm, enough to power 70,000 homes forever, would generate more long-term jobs than the proposed mining project while imposing far fewer costs on human health and the environment. The county would receive $1.74 million per year forever from the wind farm’s property tax revenues, compared to $36,000 per year for 17 years from the mountaintop removal operation.

While the group has generated over 17,000 signatures on a petition and received national media coverage, significant action by regulatory agencies and the U.S. Congress is needed to create lasting protections for the mountain. The EPA has instituted strict water quality standards that could protect most of the mountain, and the Clean Water Protection Act and the Appalachia Restoration Act would provide stronger and more permanent legal protections for mountain streams. Eliminating the option of burying streams under mine waste would drastically reduce the size of the surface mines and preserve the ridges for a wind farm. The regulatory and legislative protections still require public support from across the nation in order to realize this symbol of clean energy.

Key Concepts

  • Coal River Mountain is the latest mountain to be slated for mountaintop removal, but a proposed 328-megawatt wind farm could both save the mountain and provide a symbol for American’s post-carbon future.

  • The wind farm would produce enough energy to power 70,000 homes and generate sustainable jobs.

  • The campaign to save Coal River Mountain has involved a unique combination of activists, politicians, scientists, and actors, and provides a model for how to implement positive visions.

  • Partly as a result of these efforts, the EPA has introduced regulation that could drastically reduce mountaintop removal mining.

The communities of the Coal River Valley suffered a heartbreaking catastrophe on April 5, 2010, when Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch longwall mine exploded, killing 29 miners in the worst U.S. mine disaster in 40 years. The disaster at Upper Big Branch should remind the nation that with our current dependence on coal for electricity generation comes a responsibility to ensure that miners and the surrounding communities are protected from the negligence of company executives. At Coal River Mountain Watch, we want to take the debate a step further by offering an alternative vision for the community, one that has the potential to transform Coal River Valley and offer a powerful symbol of a viable energy future for the nation.

In March 2008, local residents banded together to fight for a wind farm instead of a mountaintop removal coal mining site operated by Massey. Generations of residents around Coal River Mountain have seen the detrimental effects of reliance on one industry. The boom-and-bust cycles of coal have caused bustling communities to become ghost towns. With the current reliance on technology such as longwall mining and mountaintop removal, miners have largely been replaced with machines and explosives. In 1980, 55,500 miners in West Virginia extracted over 121 million tons of coal, while in 2008, only about 21,000 miners extracted nearly 166 million tons. Comparing a map of the counties that have yielded the most coal to the Appalachian Regional Commission’s map of distressed counties illustrates a clear correlation. Contrary to industry claims that coal provides prosperity, economic facts indicate that it provides poverty. Presently the state has a 9.5 percent unemployment rate, while less than 4 percent of the workforce is employed by mining and logging.

The plan for Coal River Mountain would destroy over 6,000 acres of the mountain, bury streams with 18 valley fills, destroy water supplies, and eliminate sustainable resources, including the commercial wind potential. The mountaintop removal operation would provide coal and temporary mining jobs for only 17 years. In contrast, a wind farm would preserve the abundant timber and non-timber forest products, protect the water, allow traditional and new sustainable economic opportunities, and provide clean energy and green jobs forever.

An Ambivalent Alliance: Environmentalists and Utilities Unite?

Environmental groups have been facing off with the coal industry for years, trying to reduce the country’s dependence on coal and to mitigate coal’s most harmful effects. This has been an uphill battle for a number of reasons. First, for the moment, we rely on coal to meet our energy demand. There is currently no affordable, abundant, clean energy source to change that. Second, the coal industry has not had much interest in working with environmental groups. Particularly in regions like Central Appalachia, where coal is abundant and unemployment is sky-high, the coal industry wields a considerable amount of political, economic, and cultural power. Given the difficulty of fighting the coal industry, clean energy advocates in the region need some friends in high places. They have certainly received a boost from the Obama administration, with its stated commitment to enforcing mining regulations and its stimulus package aimed at creating green jobs. But with impending carbon regulation on the horizon, environmental groups may find more unlikely allies: utility companies.

As we call on our leaders to reduce carbon emissions and to invest in the development of clean energy sources, we must also call on them to invest in the future of the miners and the communities that have provided the energy upon which our nation was built and continues to be fueled today. This means asking the federal government to reinvigorate the original intent of the Appalachian Regional Development Initiative, strengthen the capacity and purview of the Appalachian Regional Commission, and invest in the health, education, training, entrepreneurship, and environment of Appalachian communities and residents. It means addressing the root causes of persistent poverty and unemployment in the region and not being afraid to anger the coal industry and the local and state politicians who uphold it to the detriment of the citizens and the miners. But most of all, it calls for making a commitment to a sustainable economic transition for the coalfields and supporting every means possible to achieve it.

Building a Positive Vision

Coal River Mountain lies at the western end of Raleigh County, in the heart of the Coal River watershed, and is bounded by the two major tributaries of the Big Coal River: Marsh Fork on the south and west of the mountain and Clear Fork on the north and east. Kayford Mountain, where thousands of acres of mountaintop have been removed, lies across the Clear Fork to the north, and Cherry Pond Mountain, likewise devastated by mountaintop removal, lies across the Marsh Fork to the southwest. Several small, unincorporated towns—Rock Creek, Naoma, Sundial, Birchton, and Pettus—lie along the Marsh Fork, and the towns of Artie, Colcord, and Dorothy are situated along the Clear Fork. Whitesville, at the eastern edge of Boone County, sits just below the convergence of the two tributaries at the western edge of the mountain. Coal River Mountain itself has long been home to underground mines, a few small, old strip mines, and, since 1995, the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment. However, most of the mountain remains relatively unspoiled and has provided generations of residents with lumber, firewood, berries, ginseng and other valuable medicinal herbs, wild game, and fish. From the air, the Coal River Mountain stands in lush contrast to its barren, dusty neighbors.

The Upper Big Branch mine, the site of the recent disaster, lies beneath the expansive Twilight surface mine complex on Cherry Pond Mountain, just across from Coal River Mountain. In 2006, Massey Energy quietly received approval for the Bee Tree surface mine on Coal River Mountain. In the latter months of 2006, David Orr, a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio and a prominent environmental advocate and writer, worked with CRMW’s North Carolina–based ally Appalachian Voices to commission a study of the wind potential on Coal River Mountain. WindLogics, a nationally recognized wind modeling and development firm, conducted the study and found that the ridges along Coal River Mountain exhibited strong Class 4 to Class 7 average annual wind speeds. Class 4 winds serve as a minimum threshold for industrial-scale wind development. When Massey applied for the Eagle 2 Surface Mine, the second of four planned permits on the mountain, Coal River Mountain Watch requested and was granted an informal conference in August 2007 for citizens to voice their opposition to the proposal. Nearly 100 residents attended the hearing, and over 30 spoke out against the permit. None spoke in favor of it. In 1997 and 2001, several Clear Fork residents had endured heavy flooding, exacerbated by runoff from mountaintop removal and valley fills on the opposite side of the Clear Fork. They feared the destruction of their community if both sides of the valley were dominated by streams buried under valley fills. Several citizens voiced support for a wind farm as an alternative to mountaintop removal. Dr. Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices described the WindLogics study and provided copies to decision makers at the Department of Environmental Protection.

Seizing the opportunity offered by the mountain’s wind resources, members of Coal River Mountain Watch, with the support of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Appalachian Voices, the Sierra Club, and the Student Energy Action Coalition, came together in March 2008 to make plans for a wind farm. Using the WindLogics wind map of the mountain, and with technical advice provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the American Wind Energy Association, CRMW’s wind project coordinator, Rory McIlmoil, constructed a model wind farm utilizing ArcGIS and Google Earth software. The model suggested that Coal River Mountain had enough wind potential and land area to accommodate 220 two-megawatt wind turbines, resulting in a total generation capability of 440 megawatts. Meanwhile, CRMW’s community organizer, Lorelei Scarbro, provided information about the project and hosted community meetings that generated substantial local support. The two, along with supportive community members, made presentations to elected and appointed leaders, from the city level to the governor’s office, and held a rally at the state capitol that resulted in more than 10,000 signatures on a petition. The project received Co-op America’s 2008 Building Economic Alternatives award. CNN reported on the project and interviewed CRMW organizer Lorelei Scarbro at her home and at the adjacent family cemetery on Coal River Mountain.

To determine what was at stake, Coal River Mountain Watch commissioned Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting firm from Morgantown, West Virginia, to conduct a comparative economic analysis of the costs and benefits of mountaintop removal and wind development on Coal River Mountain.


Vernon Haltom
Massey Energy’s Brushy Fork Slurry Impoundment on Coal River Mountain, which holds billions of gallons of sludge, a byproduct of coal processing.

That study concluded that a 328-megawatt wind farm, enough to power 70,000 homes, would generate more long-term jobs and significantly greater local tax revenues than the proposed mining would, while imposing far fewer costs on human health and the environment. In fact, the study estimated that the externalized costs of the proposed mining, which would be drained from the local economy, would amount to $600 million over the life of the mining and beyond. According to the Downstream Strategies executive summary,

“For each scenario, the local economic benefits are quantified based on increased jobs, earnings, and economic output. In addition to these economic benefits, costs due to excess deaths and illnesses from coal production and local environmental problems are quantified and added to earnings to demonstrate how each scenario impacts the citizens of Raleigh County.

Other externalities—including global environmental costs; forestry; tourism; property values; and gathering, hunting, and heritage—are not quantified in this report. However, quantification of these additional externalities would tend to favor the development of a wind farm over mountaintop removal mines.”

The wind farm would provide nearly 50 times the tax revenue to the county that a mountaintop removal site would: $1.74 million per year from the wind farm’s property tax revenues, compared to $36,000 per year for 17 years from the mountaintop removal operation. And the wind farm would provide at least 277 temporary construction jobs and 39 permanent jobs, while the jobs provided by the Massey surface mine would fluctuate in number from 79 to 248 and continue for only 17 years. The wind farm would also allow underground mining to continue.

The study also illustrated the root of the social and economic problems that have plagued coalfield communities ever since the coal industry moved in: the only beneficiaries of the mountaintop removal option would be Massey Energy and the two private land companies that own over 90 percent of the land and coal, whereas the wind farm would benefit the people—the residents of the entire county.

When the wind farm project organizers presented the study results to the Raleigh County Commission, they brought as visual aids two giant checks: one for $1.74 million per year forever from a wind farm, and one for $36,000 per year for 17 years from a mountaintop removal operation. The commission refused to take a position that would pit another energy source against coal. Commissioner John Aliff said, “To be quite honest, the coal industry has been good for the commission.”

Environmental groups have been facing off with the coal industry for years, trying to reduce the country’s dependence on coal and to mitigate coal’s most harmful effects. This has been an uphill battle for a number of reasons. First, for the moment, we rely on coal to meet our energy demand. There is currently no affordable, abundant, clean energy source to change that. Second, the coal industry has not had much interest in working with environmental groups. Particularly in regions like Central Appalachia, where coal is abundant and unemployment is sky-high, the coal industry wields a considerable amount of political, economic, and cultural power. Given the difficulty of fighting the coal industry, clean energy advocates in the region need some friends in high places. They have certainly received a boost from the Obama administration, with its stated commitment to enforcing mining regulations and its stimulus package aimed at creating green jobs. But with impending carbon regulation on the horizon, environmental groups may find more unlikely allies: utility companies.

In the 2009 West Virginia legislative session, 41 of the state’s 100 delegates co-sponsored a resolution in support of the wind project. This included four of the five delegates representing Raleigh County, where the wind farm is proposed. Again, coal lobbyist pressure and coal-friendly legislators ensured that the resolution died in committee.

However, local, national, and international support rose to new levels. As the threat to the mountain increased, community members lobbied for the wind resolution and joined with other national allies like Rainforest Action Network and Citizens Lead for Energy Action Now (CLEAN) in an e-mail campaign to West Virginia’s governor, Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the White House to halt mountaintop removal and valley fill permits on the mountain. The EPA has responded to the groups’ concerns and is currently investigating operations on Coal River Mountain. In February 2009, NASA climate scientist James Hansen posted a short paper entitled “Tell President Obama about Coal River Mountain.” He and actress/activist Daryl Hannah spoke at a June 23, 2009, rally for clean energy at the base of the mountain. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., headlined a December 7, 2009, rally where hundreds gathered to defend Coal River Mountain. Coal River Wind put a public service announcement on, where it can be seen by millions, and collaborated with Appalachian Voices and Google Earth to create a virtual flyover tour and description of the Coal River Wind project. The virtual flyover was shown to delegates at the 2009 international climate conference in Copenhagen and is part of a series of Google Earth “tours” that illustrate climate change issues and solutions. The series includes only a couple of projects per continent. The online petition presently has over 17,000 signatures.

Citizen activists have also taken action to shut down the blasting where federal and state officials did not. For nine days in January 2010, two activists associated with the Mountain Justice movement and Climate Ground Zero campaign lived on platforms 60 feet high in trees near the blasting area. In spite of continuous air horn harassment, the two remained until voluntarily coming down in advance of an imminent winter storm. Activists engaged in dozens of other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in 2009 and 2010 in the Coal River Valley, resulting in over 120 arrests. In addition to the tree-sit, seven actions took place on Coal River Mountain, ranging from simple trespass to activists chaining themselves to equipment.

The Next Steps in the Campaign

Surface mining has now begun on a small portion of Coal River Mountain. But there is still a chance to preserve the mountain for wind power. So far, the CRMW campaign’s biggest problem has been the intransigence of Massey Energy. If the cloud created by the Upper Big Branch disaster has any silver lining, it is the national scrutiny brought to bear on mine safety and the belated return of government regulation. As we are finding out, loopholes in mining regulations and lax enforcement allowed Massey Energy to avoid strengthened oversight and inspection, which could have prevented that tragedy.


Brett Marshall
In February 2009, Lorelei Scarbro (center) of the Coal River Wind Campaign entered the property of Massey Energy subsidiary Marfork Coal Company to deliver a letter to a representative of the company (right), which had begun preparing an area of Coal River Mountain for blasting. Scarbro and others were later arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave the property.

But federal regulators in the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and our elected politicians in Congress and the White House, allowed those loopholes to remain. For example, MSHA regulators ordered Massey to withdraw miners 61 times since the beginning of 2009. In 2009, more than 10 percent of MSHA’s enforcement actions at this mine were for “unwarrantable failure” to comply with safety regulations—five times the national average of about 2 percent. In its preliminary briefing to President Obama, MSHA said, “In what is perhaps the most troubling statistic, in 2009, MSHA issued 48 withdrawal orders at the Upper Big Branch Mine for repeated significant and substantial violations that the mine operator either knew, or should have known, constituted a hazard. Massey failed to address these violations over and over again until a federal mine inspector ordered it done. The mine’s rate for these kinds of violations is nearly 19 times the national rate.” Massey CEO Don Blankenship tried to downplay the severity of the violations, saying that “violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

A buildup of methane, and possibly coal dust, stands out as a likely cause of the explosion, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the investigation will consider the effects of mountaintop removal blasting above the mine, which may have affected seals. Politicians such as Senator Robert C. Byrd have weighed in, and New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has called for Blankenship to resign.

In 2008, Massey Energy sought and received permission from the WVDEP to revise a permit on Coal River Mountain. The revision allows coal extraction on a small portion of the mountain without the need for a valley fill. However, the WVDEP did not consider the revision significant enough to allow public comment or a public hearing, and ignored the revision’s effects on the remainder of the permit.

On April 1, 2010, the EPA delivered the best news yet for the campaign, issuing strict guidance for limiting water pollution from valley fills. The guidance focused on conductivity, a measure of dissolved pollutants in the water. The limit is so strict that EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson said, “You’re talking about no, or very few, valley fills that are going to meet standards like this…. The intent here is to tell people what the science is telling us, which is it would be untrue to say that you can have numbers of valley fills, anything more than, say, very minimal valley fills, and not expect to see irreversible damage to stream health.”

In addition to the impacts on stream chemistry, the guidelines consider environmental justice impacts to human communities. While they are still open for public comment, including comment from pro-coal politicians, and have not been finalized, the guidelines took effect immediately and apply to new permits and renewal permits. Along with the new guidelines, the EPA provided scientific documentation of the impacts mountaintop removal has on stream health, echoing a January 2010 study published in the journal Science by several renowned scientists that calls for a ban on mountaintop removal.

This news greatly improves the odds for Coal River Mountain’s survival. Massey’s original proposed permits included at least 18 valley fills that would fill a total of nine miles of headwater streams with mining waste laden with toxic heavy metals. If Massey were prohibited from filling the valleys, the scale of surface mining would be drastically reduced, preserving most of the mountain for a wind farm. The new requirements could lead Massey and the land companies to renegotiate their contracts, preserving the surface for a profitable wind farm while still allowing underground mining.

While citizens find encouragement in the EPA’s new guidance, they also recognize the fact that mountaintop removal is still allowed and that a new administration could rescind this guidance. To make curtailment of mountaintop removal last, CRMW and other citizen groups are still pushing the Clean Water Protection Act (CWPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Appalachia Restoration Act (ARA) in the Senate, which would curtail mountaintop removal.. The CWPA presently has 170 cosponsors and the ARA has 11. This progress is largely due to citizen lobby days sponsored by the Alliance for Appalachia, a 13-group regional coalition of which Coal River Mountain Watch is a core member. The Alliance conducts an annual lobby week, providing training and congressional meetings for approximately 200 citizens, and several mini-lobby events throughout the year. The Alliance also arranges meetings with government agencies, such as the EPA and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Appalachian Transition

We still need your help to ensure that the changes taking place through EPA regulation stick. Anyone can take action and sign our petition at Citizens all over the country can ask the EPA to deny any valley fill permits on Coal River Mountain that may be submitted, and everyone can contact their U.S. representatives and senators and ask them to support the Clean Water Protection Act and the Appalachia Restoration Act.

Coalfield communities need options for employment and livelihood beyond coal. The focus should be on giving them a choice and providing measures and incentives to support the development of those choices. It is time to turn our eyes toward Appalachia as an engine of transition and a model of sustainability, rather than a source of sorrow. If that means that the rest of the country has to pay a higher price for electricity due to a strengthening of oversight and enforcement of coal mine regulations, and if it means having more of our tax dollars go toward supporting economic transition in the coalfields, then for the sake of the miners and the future of Central Appalachian communities, that is a price we should be willing and honored to pay.

Eventually, more likely sooner than the rosy estimates of the coal industry, the coal is going to run out. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, coal production in Central Appalachia is expected to decline by nearly half within the next 10 years due to the depletion of the most accessible, lowest-cost coal seams. Another report by Downstream Strategies, titled “The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification,” notes that “should substantial declines occur as projected, coal‐producing counties will face significant losses in employment and tax revenue, and state governments will collect fewer taxes from the coal industry.” Without a strong focus on supporting economic transition in Central Appalachia, local economies will rapidly decline along with coal production.

Because of this, the report suggests that “state policymakers across the Central Appalachian region should…take the necessary steps to ensure that new jobs and sources of revenue will be available in the counties likely to experience the greatest impact from the decline. While there are numerous options available, the development of the region’s renewable energy resources and a strong focus on energy efficiency offer immediate and significant opportunities to begin diversifying the economy.”

The decisions we make now in the region will determine whether we make the best use of those renewable resources or squander the opportunity, whether we provide for long-term sustainability for communities or ravage them, and whether we preserve a planet that can support our civilization or plummet headlong into climate catastrophe. Coal River Mountain still stands as a majestic, tangible symbol of these clear choices, but it requires the decision of more citizens to make that phone call, write that letter, make that donation, and turn off that light in order to remain standing.