In a decision applauded by environmental, labor, and community groups, a judge at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on April 11 ruled that the U.S. Interior Department failed to justify its 2009 decision to remove the site of the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain labor conflict from the National Register of Historic Places.
The lawsuit challenging the de-listing was brought by a coalition of environmental and historic preservation groups, including Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Friends of Blair Mountain, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the West Virginia Labor History Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Protection for the site would stymie future coal mining in the area, which ironically was the site of a a 1920s battle that was an early step in union organizing of the coal industry of the time.
“This is 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,” said Bill Price, an organizer for the Sierra Club based in West Virginia, in an April 12 statement. “Blair Mountain is an asset to Appalachia and must be protected for future generations to visit and explore. We celebrate this decision and will continue to fight to get the Battlefield back on the National Register.”
The battlefield was, in 1921, the site of the largest armed insurrection in the United States since the Civil War, as 10,000 coal miners clashed with mining company financed forces over the right to unionize. After many nominations and revisions, the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, only to be de-listed nine months later in a move that the coalition believes was unlawful. Since federal coal mining laws provide stronger protection for sites listed on the National Register, removing Blair Mountain from the register put the future of this place at risk. In August 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit allowed the lawsuit to move forward after it determined that the proposed mining presented an actual threat to the historic site.
In his April 11 decision, Judge Reggie B. Walton at several points said the decision to delist the site was “arbitrary and capricious” and also that the decisionmaking “lacked transparency.” The judge remanded the case to the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places for “the exercise of reasoned decisionmaking.”