ROCK CREEK, W.Va. – LORELEI SCARBRO’S husband, Kenneth, an underground coal miner for more than 30 years, is buried in a small family cemetery near her property here at the base of Coal River Mountain. The headstone is engraved with two roosters facing off, their feathers ruffled. Kenneth, who loved cockfighting, died in 1999, and, Ms. Scarbro says, he would have hated seeing the tops of mountains lopped off with explosives and heavy machinery by mining companies searching for coal.
Critics say the practice, known as “mountaintop removal mining,” is as devastating to the local environment as it is economically efficient for coal companies, one of which is poised to begin carving up Coal River Mountain. And that has Ms. Scarbro and other residents of western Raleigh County in a face-off of their own.
Their goal is to save the mountain, and they intend to do so with a wind farm. At least one study has shown that a wind project could be a feasible alternative to coal mining here, although the coal industry’s control over the land and the uncertain and often tenuous financial prospects of wind generation appear to make it unlikely to be pursued. That, residents say, would be a mistake.
“If we don’t stop this,” Ms. Scarbro says, adjusting the flowers on her husband’s grave, “one day we’ll be standing on a big pile of rock and debris, and we’ll be asking, ‘What do we do now?’ ”
For many renewable-energy advocates outside the region, the struggle at Coal River Mountain has become emblematic of an effort across the country to find alternatives to fossil fuels. They have lent money, expertise and high-profile celebrities like Daryl Hannah and James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, to help residents advance their case for wind power and to make it a test case for others pursuing similar projects nationwide.
The mountain, which is privately owned and leased to coal interests, is also one of the last intact mountaintops in a region whose contours have otherwise been irreversibly altered by extreme surface-mining techniques. Preserving its peaks for a wind farm, plan advocates say, could provide needed job diversification for impoverished towns that otherwise live or die by the fortunes of coal.
Don L. Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey Energy, the largest coal company in West Virginia and the one planning to cut into Coal River Mountain’s peaks, has repeatedly called assertions of long- and short-term environmental damage exaggerated.
“There are a lot of misstatements out there,” Mr. Blankenship says. “I don’t find the environmental damage to be nearly what people say they find it to be, and we’re struggling with whether the true objective of all these regulations is to protect the environment, or whether it’s simply to stop the mining of coal.”
While the odds remain slim that wind power will replace coal mining here, proponents say that changes in state and federal mining regulations could tilt things in their favor.
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