Judge Rules against Delisting of Historic Site Caused by Coal Industry Pressure

Thursday, April 14, 2016
Miners surrender guns after Battle of Blair Mountain (photo: libcom.org)

By Jack Bouboushian, Courthouse News Service


WASHINGTON (CN) - The scene of the biggest labor war in U.S. history was removed from the National Register of Historic Places under pressure from coal mining interests, "without any indicia of reasoned decisionmaking," a federal judge ruled.


In what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, 5,000 coal miners marched to liberate fellow miners living under martial law in West Virginia in late August 1921.


"The Battle of Blair Mountain was the culmination of a labor union's unsuccessful years-long struggle to unionize miners in southwestern West Virginia coalfields, as well as to liberate miners living under martial law," U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton wrote in his April 11 opinion.


Walton continues: "As the miners marched toward Mingo County, they encountered 3,000 strikebreakers forming a miles-long defensive front across Spruce Fork Ridge on Blair Mountain. The strikebreakers entrenched themselves, dropped homemade bombs, and opened fire from mounted machineguns. The miners returned fire and the battle raged on for several days, causing numerous casualties. The miners surrendered upon the arrival of federal troops. The site of the battle is known as Blair Mountain Battlefield."


The Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and historical preservation societies joined forces to get the Blair Mountain Battlefield listed in the National Register of Historic Places, to protect it from surface coal mining.


It gained a spot in the listing in 2009, but the Keeper of the Register removed the battlefield within days, after property owners - primarily coal companies - objected.


The Keeper based the decision on a revamped list that eliminated several property owners, leaving a majority of owners that objected to the historic designation.


The D.C. Circuit in 2014 granted the environmental and historical organizations standing to challenge the Keeper's ruling, even though the land is privately owned by coal mining interests, and the plaintiffs have no legal right to step foot on the land.


The plaintiffs won a victory Monday, when Judge Walton found the agency's delisting arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act.


"The plaintiffs assert that the Keeper rubber-stamped the revised list of fifty-seven owners that the [West Virginia] state agency compiled. To support this argument, the plaintiffs point to a series of communications between the Keeper and the state agency debating which one had the responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the list," Walton wrote.


He agreed, finding no articulated rationale for the Keeper's decision to use a revised list of property owners on Blair Mountain, and no explanation for increasing the number of objectors, except allegations that the additional objections were "unintentionally overlooked."


Walton said the Keeper's actions "contain very little, if any, indicia of reasoned decisionmaking," and also "run afoul of the requirements of transparency and evidentiary propriety."


Review of the Keeper's decision does "not suggest that a re-evaluation of the record would not support a determination that a majority of the owners have objected. It does indicate, however, that the Keeper failed to fulfill its duty to examine the relevant evidence and draw reasoned conclusions from it," the opinion states.


Bill Price, a Sierra Club organizer in West Virginia, called the ruling "a major victory over the relentless efforts of coal companies who want to sacrifice our history for profits by conducting mountaintop removal coal mining on a site that is a proud part of West Virginia's heritage."


The deputy general counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Elizabeth Merritt, agreed: "A decade after the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Blair Mountain Battlefield one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, we are gratified by this federal court ruling upholding the integrity of the National Register designation process."


Walton granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and denied the Secretary of the Interior's cross-motion for summary judgment.


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