The Lure of Flat Land

By John McFerrin

Even if West Virginians are called Mountaineers, have we been lured by the idea of flat land?  Were we so charmed by the promise of flat land that we were lured into questionable decisions about how we treat our mountains?

The earliest West Virginians—or at least the earliest European ones—certainly were drawn to flat land.  When the Europeans first came over the mountains into what is now West Virginia, they first stopped in Lewisburg or Shepherdstown.  They are both in the great valley that runs in Virginia and into eastern West Virginia.  There was flat land there, land someone could farm.  The ones who did not stop in Lewisburg kept going until they got to the Kanawha Valley.  Since the first settlers did not appreciate the fortunes to be made in the coal business, they skipped over what we now call the coal fields as too rugged.  There were scattered people and settlements but the real development of that part of the state did not occur until somebody realized that there were fortunes to be made in coal and timber.

In 1977 we were presented with a chance to get more flat land: mountaintop removal.  If flat land was what we needed to get this state going, we could create for ourselves the flat land that Mother Nature had neglected to provide.

The opportunity came in the federal Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act.  It allowed mountains to be flatted. The idea of the Act was that mountaintop removal would be rare.  The Conference Committee Report before the Act finally passed specifically declared “that most of the nation’s coal reserve can only be mined by underground methods.”  Of the land that was strip mined, most would be returned to its original contour.  Land would be left flat only if there was a specific need for flat land.  If we needed a spot for a school or a factory, we could mine the spot and leave the land flat.

With the lure of all this flat land, we jumped at the chance. (Actually, whether we jumped or were pushed is an open question, with “pushed” being the stronger contender.  When West Virginia passed its version of the federal Act, there were no “Give Me Flat Land or Give Me Death!” picket signs, no “Ho, ho, hey, hey, get these mountains out of the way” chants.)  Had there been a referendum on the question, the flat land creation enterprise probably would have lost.  In any event and no matter how the decision was made, we allowed mountaintop removal.

The flat land creation allowed by the federal and state Acts did not get going right away.  By the 1990s, however, the flat land creation business was going great guns.  The coal industry was creating flat land left and right, creating the conditions that would usher in a new era of prosperity.

By 1998 mountaintop removal–with all its flat land creation and the consequences to the water and communities that it brought–was becoming more prominent and there was a lot of unrest about the issue.  Governor Underwood appointed a task force on mountaintop removal.  It had public hearings, took comment, and did a report.

Some of the testimony came from economic development officials in southern West Virginia counties.  The impression they gave was that there were companies sitting just across the state line, motors running, just waiting for some flat land to appear.  If we could just mine some more coal and create some more flat land they would flood into the state, build factories, and usher in a new day of prosperity.

The economic development officials spoke with great certitude.  By nature they are an optimistic bunch, always working and hoping for a better future for their communities.  It is impossible to know how much of their enthusiasm for flat land creation came from how perfectly that position served the interests of the coal industry.

The truth of the matter is told by the Hobet Mining site.  It is in Boone and Lincoln Counties, not too far south of Charleston.  The mining is about over, leaving 12,000 acres of flat land.

There is a railroad that goes to it.  A four lane highway runs right past it.  In spite of these advantages, the companies are not flooding into the state.  If there are not companies flooding to that site with the location and access the Hobet site enjoys, it is hard to see them flocking to other locations that are much more remote.  If you can’t attract industries to a site just south of Charleston, how are you ever going to attract industries to mined land in Blair?

When Earl Ray Tomblin was Governor he had an ambitious plan for the Hobet site.  He described it as containing enough flat land to relocate the entire city of Huntington.  He described it as “large enough to fit virtually every major economic development project in recent history—including Toyota, Proctor & Gamble, Gestamp, Macy’s, Amazon and more—with thousands of acres left over.”

Governor Tomblin wanted to spend one hundred million dollars to build an access road to the property. Since Governor Tomblin left office Governor Justice has announced a much less expensive access road.  Now the plan is to use it for a National Guard training facility.  It would be used for training on operating military vehicles, the kind intended for use in rough terrain.

If the National Guard facility does come about, we can add it to the three per cent of mountaintop removal sites that are being used for commercial development.  The rest of it will just have to sit there, all flattened up and no place to go.