By Jody Brumage
Anyone driving through West Virginia today will see yard signs and billboards expressing support and opposition to the construction of pipelines in the state. The current debate centers largely on pipelines built to transport natural gas, but fifty-six years ago, a similar battle was fought in the state over coal slurry pipelines. The technology for these overland transport systems was developed in the early-1960s. Slurry pipelines operate in one of two ways: the coal is pulverized and mixed with water or it is pressed into logs which are floated through the pipelines to their destination. Soon after this technology became available, West Virginia’s mine operators began exploring ways that pipelines could open new markets for coal extracted from the Mountain State where exportation had always relied primarily upon railroad and river barge transport.
Many West Virginians however were not completely sold on the opportunities the proposed pipeline was touted to bring. For rail line operators and many residents in the 2nd Congressional District, where important railroad depots like Elkins, Keyser, and Grafton were located, the proposed pipeline was a significant threat to the railroad's monopoly on coal transport. Fueled by newspaper advertisements and pamphlets expressing intense opposition from railroad companies like the Western Maryland and Baltimore and Ohio Railroads, citizens in the 2nd district wrote their Congressman, Harley O. Staggers, Sr., asking him to step in to prevent the pipeline in any way he could. While he noted in his replies that the matter was at that time being considered in the state legislature where he had no authority or power, Congressman Staggers, a long-time ally of the rail industry, expressed his opposition to the pipeline.
The battle over the pipeline pitted many powerful groups against each other in West Virginia. The United Mine Workers of America supported the proposal as a way of strengthening the coal industry in the state while the railroad workers union opposed the threat to rail's stronghold on coal transport business. The pipelines opponents raised questions over the merit of deeming the project of one specific company (Consolidation) a "public" work and also expressed concern over the environmental impact the pipeline might have, such as the amount of water that would be needed to successfully implement the system. When the federal legal battle over the question of eminent domain was lost, the company abandoned its project in West Virginia. However, other slurry pipelines have been built in different parts of the United States and as recently as 2004 accounted for the third largest share of coal transport behind rail and trucking.