RAN’s latest Coal Risk Update highlights the potential human rights impacts of a planned mountaintop removal mine in Blair, West Virginia. Blair Mountain is a national treasure: The mountain is the site of arguably the most important post-Civil War battlefield in the US. Currently, Arch Coal plans to build a mine that would destroy the heart of the Blair Mountain battlefield site, which has been acknowledged to be historically significant by both the National Register of Historic Places and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
This mine cannot be built without the support of the banks that finance Arch. Of particular concern, nine major banks (Bank of America, Bank of Montreal, BBVA, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, PNC Financial, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Union Bank) loaned $250 million dollars to Arch Coal last November, providing a financial lifeline to the coal company.
For these banks, this loan to Arch Coal is just a routine transaction. But for residents of Blair, the stakes are a lot higher. The town used to be a thriving community of 700 people and now has less than 50 residents because of the extreme dangers posed by existing mountaintop removal mines near the town. The people who stayed behind live with dynamite blasts, dust from mine sites, and water that is no longer safe to drink. Arch’s proposed mine would further harm Blair’s residents, while obliterating an irreplaceable piece of history. (See this video from the Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance for interviews with residents of Blair on the impacts of mountaintop removal on the community.)
Six of the banks on the Arch loan have policies that prohibit financing companies that violate human rights. If these policy commitments were working as they should have been, the Arch loan should have raised several red flags due to several human rights concerns, including as the following:
- The potential water, noise, and air pollution impacts from the mine will threaten the human rights to water and health of Blair’s residents.
- Arch’s past mining operations near Blair that, according to testimony of Arch officials, “would make life so miserable for many Blair residents that they would want to sell their homes and move” raise concerns about the human right to housing.
- Human rights norms also proscribe the intentional destruction of cultural heritage sites such as the Blair Mountain battlefield.
So will Arch’s planned mine violate human rights, even though it is in the United States? Due to systemic regulatory failure on the part of state and federal environmental protection agencies, the risk of human rights violations from mountaintop removal mining remains acute. And Arch’s environmental and community relations track record at its existing mines in Blair, combined with sworn statements by Arch employees such as “It is easier to mine coal without people around” cast doubt on Arch’s willingness or capacity to respect human rights norms.
For Arch’s lenders, Arch’s planned mine raises serious concerns: these banks failed to flag a transaction that was deeply flawed on environmental and human rights grounds. Arch’s lenders should, at a minimum, overhaul or establish lending policies and due diligence processes that are robust, verifiable, and capable of screening out similarly egregious transactions in the future. For unless they are implemented effectively, lending policy commitments are merely paper promises.
As we conclude in the update, this transaction should serve as a warning that respect for international human rights norms is no longer “optional” for banks: The U.N. Human Rights Council’s adoption of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011 established a global baseline for the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which Arch and its lenders have failed to meet.