A U.S. appeals court ruled Tuesday in favor of environmental groups fighting to protect the site of a historic 1920s labor battle between miners and companies in West Virginia from being destroyed by modern coal-mining operations.
In 1921, Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia, was the site of the largest U.S. rebellion since the Civil War — with an estimated 10,000 impoverished coal miners facing off against a militia commissioned by the West Virginia Stone Mountain Mining Co. The coal miners were angry over perceived economic exploitation at a time when organizing unions was difficult in the depression that followed World War I.
After five days of fighting, U.S. President Warren Harding deployed federal troops, who quickly crushed the rebellion. The military intervention marked the first and only time in U.S. history that the federal government used air power against citizens.
The battle saw a new front in 2009, when the Sierra Club and a coalition of local historical associations sued the federal government for removing the Blair Mountain Battlefield from the National Register of Historic Places, a move the group said would open the area to large-scale surface mining.
"The site is considered hallowed ground by many folks in the labor movement and folks who are involved in coal mining in West Virginia," explained Peter Morgan, a Sierra Club attorney.
In 2012, a court threw out the Sierra Club’s claim against the Department of Interior and the National Park Service. However, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned that decision on Tuesday in a vote of 2-1.
The appeals court found the groups had a right to challenge the government's delisting of the site since their members, including descendants of veterans who fought in the battle, would be harmed if it were altered by mining operations.
Several coal companies own permits to the land but are not currently mining there, the ruling said. The coal companies pushed for the site, which is on privately owned land, to be delisted from the register because of their interest in one day developing the coal resources there, an accompanying opinion added.
The Department of Justice, which represented the government in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The West Virginia Coal Association, which represents mining interests in the state, wrote a friend of the court brief supporting the government in the case. West Virginia is the country's second-largest coal producing state, after Wyoming.
"Our overriding concern is a third-party group like the Sierra Club's only interest is putting up another roadblock to mining coal," said Jason Bostic, the association's vice president.
The United Mine Workers of America also submitted a friend of the court brief supporting the environmentalists.
One year before fighting broke out on Blair Mountain, union-busting mercenaries assassinated a pro-union mayor in the southern West Virginia town of Matewan, PBS reported. At the time, most states had laws against organizing workers or forming unions — arguing it would slow economic growth.
But for coal miners on the mountain, they had few options because of widespread poverty. The coal companies owned the miners’ homes and paid them in credits that could only be spent in high-priced company-owned stores, according to PBS. If any worker complained about safety or work conditions, they would be fired.
“They were facing big odds. The coal operators had machine guns, they had tommy guns, a lot of high-powered rifles. They even had a small artillery piece up on one of the mountains here,” Doug Estepp, a local historian and area tour guide told PBS.
A survivor of the battle, Paul Maynard, said in a 1970s documentary, “Even the Heavens Weep,” that despite the odds, miners from other states joined the struggle.
“I don’t know, there was thousands around here, but they was coming in from Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the miners was,” Maynard said. “They told the government that if they didn’t open up Logan County, that they was gonna open it up themselves and blow it away.”
Al Jazeera and wire services