Strip-mining would destroy historic towns

Impact of A&G Coal's mining on the Virginia side of Black Mountain
Impact of A&G Coal's mining on the Virginia side of Black Mountain

The historic coal town of Lynch is in a fight for survival. So far, all it's getting from its own state government are knives in the back.

The state Division of Mine Permits recently gave A&G Coal, based in Wise, Va., approval to strip 1,105 acres, including Looney Ridge, on Black Mountain above Lynch and its sister city, Benham.

Nally & Hamilton Enterprises, on behalf of a Massey Energy subsidiary, is seeking permission to strip another 500 acres nearby.

Fortunately, the A&G permit is among 21 in Kentucky put on hold by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for further study of the potential effects on water.

Residents need only drive across the state line to preview the disturbance and destruction. A&G has stripped the Virginia side of Black Mountain and was responsible for pushing a boulder onto a home 649 feet below in Inman, Va., killing a child while he slept in 2004. The Greenbrier resort's new owner has since bought A&G Coal.

The Lynch City Council, already appealing the state's refusal to declare an area around Benham and Lynch unsuitable for mining, will probably keep fighting.

The appeals will eventually reach Energy and Environment Secretary Leonard K. Peters. He should exercise his legal authority — and duty — to protect irreplaceable resources such as Looney Creek and the mountain views from Benham and Lynch.

These hamlets, in the shadow of Kentucky's highest point, hold a special place in our history. Built by U.S. Steel and International Harvester, they were company towns, where immigrants from Europe and African-Americans from the deep South dug out a future for themselves in underground coal mines.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation last year put Black Mountain on its list of most endangered historic places.

What's at stake, though, is the future.

Log onto Tripadvisor and read reviews of the Benham School House Inn for a glimpse of the possibilities: "Awesome, touching, breathtaking surrounding mountains ... I would consider opening a business there ... a lot of possibilities for this little town,'' said one visitor. "Been there for two romantic getaways, and the best part is the peace and quiet ... rustic accommodations, simple Kentucky hospitality," said another.

And a third: "Wife disappointed we did not see one of the black bears that come by to dive the dumpster!"

The two towns, which together have about 1,400 people, are capitalizing on their history to develop tourism: Benham's Kentucky Coal Mining Museum occupies a commissary renovated with aid from the state. Portal 31 in Lynch bills itself as Kentucky's first exhibition coal mine.

The upper elevations of Black Mountain were protected from mining and logging during the Patton administration, when the state spent $4.2 million to secure the rights.

Like most of Eastern Kentucky, Lynch and Benham have high rates of poverty. They also have something rare in the region: excellent water, which ripples off Black Mountain into Looney Creek.

Blast and strip the mountain's lower reaches and there will be no more good water, no more awesome views, no more peace and quiet, no future for Benham and Lynch.

If the Beshear administration is willing to sacrifice all that, we'll have proof positive that the rights of Kentuckians now mean less to their government than the prerogatives of coal companies.