In a first-of-its-kind partnership in Louisiana, the historical preservation group Austin Civil War Round Table of Texas has joined with the environmental group Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). The organizations, with help from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, filed a petition with the state Department of Natural Resources to declare a 6,000-acre tract in northwest Louisiana near Mansfield unsuitable for mining. The state returned the petition in mid-May, requesting additional information. Tulane Environmental Law Clinic staff attorney Karla Raettig says the clinic will re-file the petition by the end of the month, after which the state will have a year to respond.
In 1983, Dolet Hills Lignite Mine obtained a 40-year state permit to mine for lignite coal in DeSoto Parish. The permit is reviewed every five years, and in its most recent 2003-2007 review, Dolet Hills -- owned by American Electric Power and its subsidiary, Southwest Electric Power Company (AEP/SWEPCO) -- proposed extending its mining operations into parts of the parish that opponents say will encroach on the battlefield. Lignite, a fossil fuel, is used to generate power at the utilities' plants.
Austin Civil War Round Table president Dan Laney calls the phenomenon of Civil War preservationists aligning with environmentalists "a little bit new, but it's a natural alliance." He cites the case of a similar partnership that successfully halted development on a Virginia battlefield.
His group argues that the Mansfield Battlefield, upon which the April 8, 1864, Battle of Mansfield was fought, is historically significant because it was the last major Confederate victory in the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the Civil War. Laney's group takes particular interest in Mansfield because it says a large number of Texans fought and died there. The site is said to hold unmarked Union graves as well as wartime artifacts.
"There's strong historical evidence that those boys are still out there," Laney says. "We'd like it acknowledged it's hallowed ground, and we'd like the strip-mining to stop."
Mike Young, spokesman for Dolet Hills' parent company AEP, says the mining operation is obligated to do a "cultural survey" of the area and have state officials remove any remains or artifacts. "If any artifacts are shown during a cultural survey the proper handling has to take place," he says. The company has complied with other requests not to mine parcels of land, Young says. However, he calls the 6,000-acre request is excessive.
"Our mission is to provide low-cost, reliable electricity," Young says. "At the same time, we are willing to work with any group, but it has to be practical."
John Pint, a Tulane Environmental Law Clinic student attorney who helped file the petition, says even if the company removes important artifacts, its planned mining will devastate the area for a long time. "Surface mining involves drag lines that bulldoze along the surface of the ground and create big piles that they have to sift through to get coal," he says. "They chew up all the ground, and after they finish a certain area they are supposed to restore it as much as it's economically feasible for them. But as you can imagine, once they clear away the trees and the surface of the earth, it takes a while to regenerate."
Members of the partnership have met with state tourism officials to discuss plans to turn the Mansfield Battlefield into a tourist attraction: a key site on a proposed Civil War Trail throughout Louisiana. "Tourists are not going to want to see a hole in the ground," says LEAN executive director Marylee Orr.
Orr's group presented data citing potentially hazardous air and groundwater contamination that it contends lignite mining would produce. Chemist Wilma Subra, working for LEAN, contends that particulate matter would be "a major source" of respiratory irritation for nearby residents and visitors. "I've been following lignite mining for about 12 years," Subra says. "Lignite mining is not environmentally friendly."
The petition includes documentation by the state DEQ in 2000 that Dolet Hills had violated several state monitoring regulations. Young, of Dolet Hills' parent company AEP, says those violations are all in the past. Regardless of the outcome, the group that brought the petition predicts more environmental/historical alliances to come. "Our issues are the same, our concerns are the same," says Orr. "And we each bring a certain amount of expertise."