Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s ambitious proposal to develop “the largest industrial site in West Virginia history” at the site of one of the state’s largest mountaintop removal mines is a long way from reality, and faces a mixed record for the long-standing coal industry theory that businesses would flock to locate to the coalfields if only rugged hilltops and hollows were flattened out by mine operators.
Tomblin targeted the sprawling Hobet 21 site along the Boone-Lincoln County line for the project, announcing the idea in a State of the State address in which the governor, a Logan County native with close ties to coal, spoke in an increasingly frank way about the dismal prospects that mining in the state’s southern coalfields is likely to recover significantly from its ongoing decline.
“We cannot ignore the unprecedented shift that has taken place in our state and our nation,” Tomblin said in the speech last week. “Forces beyond our control have severely damaged our coal industry, and even the most optimistic among us realize it is unlikely coal will ever reach production levels of the past.”
Tomblin touted the state’s application for $140 million in federal grant money that he said would be used to help six counties in the southern coalfields — Boone, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming — to “adapt, adjust and advance” their communities in a region that has watched coal jobs vanish in the face of intense competition from low-priced natural gas, tougher environmental regulations from the federal government, and the mining out of the easiest-to-reach and most valuable coal seams.
The governor said that flattened land from a mountaintop removal site can help address the “one major obstacle” that state economic developers consistently run into when chasing larger-scale projects. He said that our “redeveloped surface mine lands offer endless opportunities” for residential, commercial and industrial development, and singled out the Hobet site, saying it would provide 12,000 acres of land “large enough to fit virtually every major economic development project in recent history — including Toyota, Procter & Gamble, Gestamp, Macy’s, Amazon, and more — with thousands of acres to spare.”
Such predictions have long been part of the mantra in support of mountaintop removal, a mining practice that citizen groups have been fighting for years and that scientists have said seriously damages water quality and forest ecosystems, and that studies have also found linked to increasing risks of serious diseases, such as cancer and birth defects, among residents who live near large-scale surface mining operations.
But despite promises in the 1977 federal strip-mining law, for development plans to be part of mountaintop removal permits, coal operators largely avoided being forced to come up with such plans, and the record for large-scale sites to later be used for any sort of major developments have been mixed at best.
Seen through that context, the governor’s announcement didn’t leave some of the coal industry’s longtime critics exactly jumping up and down to praise Tomblin’s proposal.
“We’re still crying about the lack of flat land?” said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “But now suggesting state resources can develop those old strip-job lands left relatively barren and frankly relatively inaccessible and with questionable sources and quality of water to support whatever development might possible be tried. What happened to the laws that were to guarantee more?
“I certainly see and sympathize with the need for and heartily support any and all attempts to help those communities that have given their lives and lifeblood for coal, but it is difficult for me to gracefully accept the reality that those communities are left wanting in the wake of a departing industry that promised the world but left poverty instead,” Rank said.
Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s communications director, said that the governor believes that several factors make the Hobet proposal more likely to succeed where others haven’t: It’s located right off Corridor G, with easy access to four-lane highways, is close to a strong labor force, and is so much larger than other potential development sites. Stadelman also emphasized that Tomblin is interested not just in industrial uses for the site.
“Long term, the governor would like to see housing, schools, community spaces, and small businesses locate to this site to provide new, safe housing for residents,” Stadelman said Friday.
Stadelman also conceded, though, that the effort is in the early stages, with a lot of moving parts, and exactly how it might work and what might happen are a long way from being clear.
In his speech, Tomblin said that Marshall University and West Virginia University would be working on the project, and that the team included interim Marshall President Gary White, new Marshall President Jerry Gilbert and WVU President E. Gordon Gee. White and Gee both have longstanding coal industry ties, with White having been a former executive with companies controlled by the late Buck Harless, and Gee having served on Massey Energy’s board of directors under former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.
Stadelman said after the speech that the development is likely to be part of a public-private partnership with the state Economic Development Authority playing a major role “as an overseer” of the property. Development efforts would begin with the parts of the site located closest to Corridor G, he said.
The Hobet site, previously mined by Ashland Coal, Arch Coal and then Patriot Coal, was long touted by mining industry officials as an example of what they said were successful mining and reclamation practices. During one tour in the mid-1990s, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt praised the operation, saying what he saw there was “a better landscape, in many ways, a different landscape — a savanna of forests coming back.”
But it’s also been the frequent target of protests from environmentalists. When the fight over mountaintop removal began gearing up in the late 1990s, a permit for an expansion of Hobet 21 was at the center of the controversy. More recently, scientists have warned that long-term pollution from the mining site has created serious water quality problems, and citizen groups last year launched a major federal court lawsuit over the contamination.
Over the last six months, the Hobet site has also been the subject of much back-and-forth among various parties during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Patriot Coal.
In August 2015, a group called the Virginia Conservancy Legacy Fund announced its plans to buy Patriot’s most troubled mines — those with long-term liabilities for pollution and for miner pensions and healthcare benefits — in a deal that included Hobet.
Initially, the state Department of Environmental Protection called the proposal “pie in the sky” and a “Hail Mary pass” that would not rescue a financial reorganization plan that DEP lawyers said was “destined to fail.” Later, though, DEP supported the effort, after reaching a deal that set aside $50 million for environmental cleanups. During his speech last week, Tomblin recognized Tom Clarke, the conservation fund’s CEO and a healthcare executive with a company called Kissito Inc., and said Clarke is part of the team working on the Hobet development efforts.
Clarke said Friday that he’s excited about the project, but that it’s in the early stages.
“I guess you would call it the concept stage,” Clarke said. “There aren’t any blueprints or anything.”
Environmental groups and others remain concerned that there’s not nearly enough money to fully fund reclamation of the site, especially for treatment of water pollution. And they’re not sure about the plan touted by both Clarke and by Tomblin to include reforestation efforts at the Hobet site as part of West Virginia’s plan to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to reduce global warming pollution.
Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that EPA has made it clear that such reforestation projects can’t be used by state agencies like DEP as part of a state plan to meet the federal carbon pollution reduction requirements. Still, Richardson, a West Virginia native from a coal-mining family, was encouraged by Tomblin’s comments and the general direction of the initiative.
“It’s heartening to hear the governor talk passionately about the need for economic diversification in the coalfields,” Richardson said. “I’ll be very interested to see what they have planned for Hobet. If they’re successful in drawing new businesses to that site, it could help change the conversation.”
West Virginia Republicans, in responding to the governor’s proposals, focused on what Tomblin didn’t talk about: continuing efforts to fight EPA’s new pollution limits. For example, a statement issued on behalf of House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, blamed the state’s serious economic challenges “in large part” on “the collapse in the energy markets driven by President Obama’s War on Coal.”
Tomblin, though, referred in his comments only to “forces beyond our control” having damaged the coal industry. The governor did not elaborate.
A top official from the Sierra Club, which has led the fight against the coal industry, generally had kind words for the governor’s latest remarks and initiative.
“It’s important to see the governor both acknowledge that coal is not going to return to its past heights, and to prioritize diversifying the state’s economy, investing in the coalfields, and helping ensure the workers who powered our economy for so long can be positioned to help our country grow in the decades to come,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.
“If they recruit new businesses for the state at Hobet, then that’s a good thing,” Hitt said. “The question, of course, is who builds on the site and what their needs are. It certainly seems like it would have potential for a wind farm or solar array.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.