Coal companies and environmentalists have vied for Kentucky's highest mountain. Now a national organization shines a light on what's at stake.
Controversial mining proposals have cast a national spotlight on Kentucky’s highest peak.
Reaching 4,145 feet into the Appalachian sky, Black Mountain, in Harlan County, is more than just Kentucky’s highest point. Its green slopes are home to many endangered plants and animals, and the mountain’s springs provide some of the nation’s purest natural water to the nearby historic coal towns of Lynch and Benham.
Concern over the effects proposed mining operations could have on the mountain’s ecosystems and water, however, has thrust the peak onto the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of endangered historic sites.
The annual list “highlights important examples of the nation’s architectural, cultural and natural heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage,” according to the organization. In addition to Black Mountain, other rural sites on the 2010 list include the Wilderness Battlefield in Virginia, Saugatuck Dunes in Michigan, and Pågat in Guam.
“We try to make sure our listing is a diverse listing of urban and rural sites,” said Valecia Crisafulli, acting vice president of programs at the National Trust.
Crisafulli added that she thinks the list, now in its 23rd year, has been one of the trust’s “most successful programs for increasing awareness and advocacy of historical landmarks.”
“We have only lost a handful of sites,” she said.
The success of the program offers hope to Lynch and Benham residents that mining will not threaten Black Mountain, their towns’ water supply, or the growth of tourism in the area. “I have no problems with mining,” said Lynch Mayor Ronnie Hampton. “I mined for 38 years and was a mine inspector for 30. It’s in my blood. But mountaintop removal next to a community is just not a good fit. It’s not compatible.”
The preservation of the water supply, though, “is an ongoing concern,” said Roy Silver, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the organization that nominated Black Mountain for the National Trust’s list.
“We’ve got water coming off the mountainside that goes down into Looney Creek,” said Hampton. “We’ve got a hundred million gallon water system that U.S. Steel built to sustain this town. Mountaintop removal and those types of things are threatening that system.”
Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote that the goal of the list is not solely for the conservation of historic sites but “also about neighborhoods and communities that contribute to the quality of life in America and the people who work hard to preserve them.”
Once home to 10,000, Lynch now claims only 900 residents. The decline of the coal industry has contributed to the town’s population loss. Now, the preservation of Black Mountain is seen as a way to revitalize the community through further development of regional tourism – a process the communities have already begun.
Lynch is home to Portal 31, a preserved underground mine open to the public. Benham has established a mining museum and converted a historic schoolhouse into an inn. The Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area attracts tens of thousands of ATV enthusiasts to the area each year. Plans to add a lookout to Black Mountain are already in the works, and hiking and horse trails are being considered as well, according to the mayor. Proposed mining permits threaten these plans as well.
Residents are contesting the permits, however, and the national spotlight aids their fight. Mayor Hampton remains optimistic that mountaintop removal will not take place here and that Black Mountain will remain unharmed, a state landmark.
Black Mountain “is as close as you can get to heaven in Kentucky and still have your feet on the ground,” he said. “We host the highest point in Kentucky. That won’t change.”