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Battle of Blair Mountain Revisited Over Strip Mine Plans

June 17, 1991

BLAIR, W.Va. (AP) _ Blair Mountain is a battleground, pitting coal miners against the operators - again.

In 1921, the issue was unionization, and the result was an insurrection. Thousands of miners faced off against guards, state troopers and deputies.

In 1991, the issues are more complicated. The union is fighting plans to strip mine nearby - because the area must be preserved for posterity, the miners say; because it would be done by non-union workers, the company claims.

And this time, the weapon of choice is not guns and bombs, but lawsuits.

The A.T. Massey Coal Co. promises its new low-sulfur coal mine ″would change the course of Logan County forever″ by providing 350 jobs for 20 years. The unionists doubt it, and they retort that the events of 70 years ago already had changed life here forever.

For nearly two weeks in August and September of 1921, an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 coal miners challenged the power of coal operators who told them where to live, where to work and where to spend their money.

The battle, little known except to labor historians, was peppered with famous names: labor organizer Mary Harris ″Mother″ Jones, who stood on the steps of the state Capitol and urged miners to lynch the sheriff; President Warren G. Harding, who mobilized 2,100 troops to quell the rebellion; Gen. Billy Mitchell, whose 88th Army Air Corps squadron conducted reconnaissance missions in the only U.S. air force role in a domestic civil disturbance.

The struggle lasted 12 days, as skirmishes broke out in at least five locations around the mountain. By the time federal troops arrived by train from New Jersey, Ohio and Kentucky, historians estimate that 13 miners and three deputies were killed and 47 others were wounded.

George Dials, a former state energy commissioner who is now president of Massey Coal Services, says history is important, but priority must be given to providing jobs in Logan County, where the unemployment rate has been gauged as high as 10.5 percent.

In a recent letter to Logan County residents, Dials said Massey’s Aracoma Coal subsidiary plans to invest $70 million to get the project started, aided by an undisclosed amount of state tax credits.

″Local businesses would flourish once again and local schools would be able to offer the kind of quality education our children deserve,″ he wrote.

But Michael Burdiss, a United Mine Workers union staff member who wants Blair Mountain and several thousand surrounding acres declared an historical area, doubts true prosperity will come from mining Blair Mountain.

″They want to come in, mine the coal and have a limited amount of prosperity for a few years,″ Burdiss said. ″But when it’s done, we’re worse off than we were before.

″There was an 1864 tax study done in this state that said exactly that about the coal industry. And here we are, more than 100 years later, and we’re still arguing the same argument,″ he said.

Burdiss said the union objects only strip mining and the scars it would leave on the mountain and surrounding ridges.

″Only 15 percent of the reserves Massey wants to remove are mountaintop seams,″ Burdiss said. ″The rest is recoverable by underground techniques, and if they’d only do that, everyone would walk away a winner.″

He said the time has arrived ″for West Virginians to learn they have to keep something back, that they have to save something for the future.″

Massey, considered a union-bashing outfit by the UMW, is not the only company that hopes to strip mine. A unionized company, Dal-Tex Coal Corp., has proposed a mountaintop removal project that would lower Blair - now 1,961-feet tall, one of the highest points in southern West Virginia - by about 200 feet.

The UMW, the West Virginia Wildlife Federation, the West Virginia Labor History Association and others have opposed that project, as well, and have asked the state Supreme Court to require more historical data be gathered before the necessary permits to mine can be issued.

They also want the state to consider a petition to declare the area unsuitable for mining because of its historical significance.

Massey officials say their mine is not actually on Blair Mountain and would not disturb historical sites nearly unchanged since the battle. A West Virginia University study found evidence of defenders’ fox holes, bunkers and machine gun nests on nearby ridges.

At the center of the 1921 dispute was Don Chafin, the all-powerful sheriff of Logan County.

Financed by coal operators and backed by state police, Chafin had deputized a private army and built a small air force. Their mission: to keep union organizers away and stop the miners from marching on Blair Mountain and challenging Chafin’s hold on the Logan coalfields.

The miners battled his deputies on and around Blair Mountain as anti-union forces dropped a few homemade bombs from biplanes.

Eventually, more than 550 miners were indicted on charges of murder and treason against the state government. Virtually all were acquitted.

But U.S. Attorney Elliot Northcott investigated and found the coal industry gave Chafin money and ″complete political control of the county.″ In vain, Northcott recommended that Chafin and the coal operators be prosecuted.

″No stranger can go into Logan County and do business without first satisfying Chafin as to his identity and the nature of his business,″ Northcott said, ″and a number of instances have occurred where strangers have been beaten up and ordered out of the county on the first train because they did not satisfactorily pass Chafin’s scrutiny.″

Chafin’s victory on Blair Mountain set back union organizing in Appalachia’s coalfields for years. The southern West Virginia mines remained largely unorganized until 1933, when Congress passed the Industrial Recovery Act, affirming the rights of labor to organize.

End Adv Monday, June 17

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