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Mining West Virginia

By Staff | Apr 28, 2009

In West Virginia, coal has always been king. The mining industry in the Mountain State provides more than 40,000 jobs and contributes billions of dollars to the economy, but what is it doing to the environment? The quest for West Virginia to become more environmentally friendly and find alternative energy solutions continues. 

West Virginia ranked dead last in an article in Forbes magazine entitled “The Environment: America’s Greenest States” in 2007. It stated that West Virginia ranked as having the fourth highest carbon footprint and the state ranked the fourth worst in water cleanliness. 

The article also stated that West Virginia has more toxic waste to manage per capita than all but three states. But according to Kathy Cosco, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, that may be a little misrepresentative. 

“West Virginia has a small population compared to other states, but we do have electric generated facilities that burn coal, plus all of the coal mining we do,” Cosco said. “So it’s not quite a fair representation.” 

In fact, the Mountain State leads the nation in coal exports with more than 50 million tons shipped to 23 different countries and that coal accounts for about 50 percent of U.S. coal exports, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. 

“West Virginians know energy better than almost anyone,” said Gov. Joe Manchin. “This has been our expertise for generations, and we can’t let it go now.” 

Manchin also said that finding more efficient sources of energy such as natural gas, and renewable alternatives like wind, solar, hydro and biofuels, is a high priority, but finding cleaner ways to burn coal is just as important. 

“We live in a state that is rich with natural resources, with coal being able to produce reliable energy much less expensive than most other forms,” Manchin said. “We know now that we have a social responsibility to the environment. We have to find ways to burn clean coal.” 

The governor said coal can be safer than nuclear energy and less expensive than solar power, and unlike most of the nation’s oil that comes from the Middle East, coal can be found right in our backyard. 

“We have the opportunity to use coal, through a much cleaner process, to help our nation become more secure through energy dependence,” Manchin said.  “West Virginia has the researchers with the right knowledge to make that happen.” 

Manchin said he believes the technological solutions leading to the greening of the coal industry are the key to America’s security, and he is committed to working toward the continued development of clean coal technologies. 

West Virginia is also one of the most aggressive of states that have surface mining activities in terms of reforestation of abandoned surface mine land, according to Cosco. 

The Department of Environmental Protection has also been working, in a collaborative effort with WVU and Marshall University, on restoring industrial brownfields. Brownfields are typically pieces of mine-scarred land that have become contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants, and the project’s goal is to clean up these areas and redevelop them in order to link economic growth with environmental benefits.  “Instead of going in and developing an area that has never been touched, we find a site that’s already been developed and redevelop it,” Cosco said. “It’s a very sustainable way of using the land and preserving green space.” 

These efforts also improve the quality of the land, and turn community health and safety liabilities into community assets, along with preventing sprawl.   

Gov. Manchin said he is committed to exploring ways to give priority to post-mining uses involving renewable energy projects such as biomass, solar and wind, for the purpose of making these lands productive. 

“I believe that there’s a balance to be had involving mining,” Manchin said. “There must be a purposeful and beneficial post-mine land use plan in place to benefit our citizens.” 

There are many stream restoration projects going on throughout the state that are related to abandoned mine land drainage causing acid levels to be raised in streams. Limestone is added to polluted streams to bring the pH level back to where it is supposed to be in order to support a habitat in the waters. 

Communities throughout the state are also banding together to help out the environment. In January, residents of Ashland, located in McDowell County, came together with the help of the Department of Environmental Protection and broke ground on a wastewater treatment plant that helps reduce pollution released into their water due to mine drainage. 

“It’s the perfect example of a community itself pulling together and saying, ‘We want to do something about this’,” Cosco said. “West Virginians take pride in their state and its conditions, and they take action when they see a need.”

Along with ranking West Virginia as the least green state, the Forbes article said the state had no clear plans to do anything about it, and that it should be expected to remain that way.   

Cosco said she finds it a little discouraging that there seems to be no faith that West Virginia would take steps to improve, because she knows there are things being done. 

“We’re constantly trying to improve our environment,” she said. “We’re constantly trying to improve our water quality and our air quality.” 

Manchin believes West Virginia’s future is bright, and that a key to that future is through finding efficient energy sources making sure there is a continued effort to improve the environment. 

“I’ve learned that if you’re good to Mother Earth, she’ll be good to you,” he said. 

Manchin said he sees West Virginia being at the forefront of an energy revolution that will bring prosperity to the state, and contributes that to the people in the state with the knowledge and skills to make it possible. 

“Our greatest resource isn’t in our land, it’s in our people,” he said. “If we tap that resource, the progress we have made will be just the beginning.” 

Contact William at wjones@graffitiwv.com