Partner profile: West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

Written by: Dan Radmacher
November 18, 2011

The partnership between Appalachian Mountain Advocates and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy actually predates our founding in 2001 (as the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment).

When co-founder Joe Lovett first became interested in the legal issues behind mountaintop removal mining, he sought out Cindy Rank, then the Highland Conservancy Mining chair, who had been tracking mountaintop removal permits as they grew larger and involved burying ever longer segments of West Virginia streams.

At that point, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy was one of the environmental groups paying the most attention to mountaintop removal mining. The partnership between the Highlands Conservancy and Appalachian Mountain Advocates would help energize the growing opposition to this destructive practice.

Rank wrote a series of articles for The Highlands Voice, the Highlands Conservancy’s monthly publication, documenting the march of mountaintop removal. The Highlands Conservancy was the first client Lovett signed up for what would become a landmark mountaintop removal case known as Bragg. (The Highlands Conservancy and its members have often been our clients in the years since Bragg. Its members frequently have legal standing – the ability to show direct connection and potential harm – in the cases we pursue.)

The Highlands Conservancy was more than a client. John McFerrin, Julian Martin and Rank understood the terrain of mountaintop removal regulation better than nearly anyone. McFerrin, then president of the Highlands Conservancy, was appointed to Gov. Cecil Underwood’s mountaintop removal task force – its sole environmental representative.

“Cindy understood the law,” Lovett said. “She was a historian and compiler of the facts about the destruction of watersheds. The really big mines were new; valley fills were getting bigger. She was appropriately outraged by it.”

Rank said the timing of Lovett’s involvement and the founding of Appalachian Mountain Advocates “couldn’t have been better given the convergence of attention and interest and concern about the new large scale mining that was going on then.”

Rank and Lovett understood that had the laws been applied as they were written, this kind of mining never would have been allowed. Rank said Lovett kept asking her about the buffer zone rule, which was supposed to limit mining activity within 100 feet of a stream, wondering why regulators didn’t refuse permits for most valley fills that would violate that rule. “He kept saying, ‘The law says they can’t do that!’ ”

“The Bragg case was a turning point for so many things,” Rank said. As that case made news and progressed through the courts, other organizations became more involved in fighting mountaintop removal – groups like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the recently formed Coal River Mountain Watch.

Rank said Lovett and Appalachian Mountain Advocates helped pull a lot of things together. Though the Highlands Conservancy had been doing mining cases for years – addressing acid mine drainage, bonding and other issues – the size and complexity of the undertaking was becoming daunting for a volunteer group with limited resources.

Appalachian Mountain Advocates had strong partnerships with national groups like Public Justice, Earthjustice and, later, the Sierra Club that Rank said “would bring a whole new dimension” to what Highlands Conservancy had been doing.

“As a volunteer statewide group, we would never be able to do as much with just our own resources,” Rank said. “We’re very grateful that Appalachian Mountain Advocates have been able to bring that depth and breadth to those things that concern us about mining. There are never enough public interest lawyers – but there is always more than enough demand for them.”

Lovett praised the Highland Conservancy’s board and organization for its longstanding commitment to fighting the abuses of the coal industry. “It’s a grassroots organization with a really active board that’s one of the few groups run by volunteers rather than paid staff,” Lovett said.

He also especially praised Rank’s years of effort. “Cindy’s been a catalyst and a help for a lot of what we’ve done here,” Lovett said.

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