Fellow Story

Wind Versus Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in West Virginia

Fellow(s): Evan Hansen

In parts of West Virginia and Kentucky, mountaintop removal coal mining is used to blast off the tops of mountains and bulldoze rock and dirt into adjacent headwater stream valleys creating “valley fills.” The goal: to efficiently access thin coal seams near the surface.  The legality of this process has been hotly contested, and it has been the subject of numerous lawsuits, scientific studies, and protests.

Mountaintop removal impacts local communities through noise and dust from blasting, contaminated drinking water, flooding, and damage to aquatic ecosystems.  In the Coal River watershed in southern West Virginia, valley fills already bury more than 11,000 acres, or 2% of the watershed, and more than 15 miles of streams. On Coal River Mountain, Massey Energy is proposing to bury an additional 900 acres of land and 9 miles of streams.

A grassroots organization called Coal River Mountain Watch had studied the wind resources on the mountain and discovered that it seems suitable for a large wind farm. With this alternative in mind, they hired Downstream Strategies, Switzer Fellow Evan Hansen’s environmental consulting company, to analyze the local economic benefits of this alternative versus the proposed mountaintop removal mines.

Not surprisingly, from the landholding company’s point of view, mountaintop removal mines are preferable to wind. Mining 47 million tons of coal would generate $63 million in royalties. In comparison, a wind farm would generate $19 million.

However, from the perspective of the citizens of Raleigh County, mountaintop removal mines actually cost more than the income they provide in terms of increased deaths and illnesses from coal mining, and environmental impacts.  When combining local externalities with local benefits, wind scenarios are considerably more attractive. Developing the wind resources on Coal River Mountain provides net positive local economic benefits to the region, including providing more cumulative jobs, and generating significantly more tax revenue for Raleigh County.

However, despite the clear local economic benefits of pursuing wind, a final decision rests with the landowners and the mining companies that are leasing the land. Without an intervention, these companies are free to pursue the greatest profits possible.  Interventions could include a change in the regulatory or legal landscape in regard to surface coal mining, or a possible government intervention that would be based on the recognition that the local economy can benefit more in the long run with the development of a wind farm. Additionally, the state government could intervene if the Governor uses his executive powers to rescind the mining permits.

The Coal River Mountain wind farm has been contentious since this concept was first proposed  in late 2006. However, the conclusions of Evan Hansen’s report confirm that a wind farm would produce greater local economic benefits to citizens of Raleigh County, particularly when health and environmental externalities are considered.

The report can be downloaded from www.coalriverwind.org, and Evan Hansen can be contacted at ehansen@downstreamstrategies.com.