Once There Was a Mountain Ravaging West Virginia for "Clean Coal"

Ravaged mountains near Larry Gibson’s “homeplace” on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia.© Getty Images (l), Jim Motavalli (r)

From the ground, peering up at their vertigo-inducing heights, the green and wooded mountains of southern West Virginia look ancient and undefiled. But from the air, the stark reality of an ecosystem under siege becomes clear. E recently boarded a flyover sponsored by Southwings, a group of volunteer pilots who work to dramatize environmental challenges in the Southeast. The mountains around Charleston retain their diverse hardwood cover and contours shaped by time immemorial, but things change abruptly 35 miles to the southeast, where the small, single-engined plane swooped low over a moonscape.

Replacing the green mountains are flat, bare and terraced plateaus that evoke the mesas of the Southwest, though with added black stripes from the coal seams. The trucks kicking up dust on this inhospitable terrain appear tiny from the air, but in reality they are monsters with 16-foot tall tires—so big they can’t travel on public roads and must be assembled on the mining site.

From the air, this blasted vista is momentarily interrupted by a flash of green—the 50 acres that has been in Larry Gibson’s family since the 1700s. It is, in local parlance, his “homeplace,” and 300 of his relatives are buried there in a cemetery that is itself slowly being undone by the mining operations all around it. Once mountains loomed 1,000 feet above the hilltop cemetery; now it stands alone, looking down on a blasted world.

Back on the ground, Gibson—the last holdout on Kayford Mountain—welcomes visitors to what’s left of the family homestead, established in 1797. The property, once 500 acres, is shaded by ancient trees and dotted with the cabins and trailers of family members” vacation homes. But it is also blanketed in coal dust and regularly shaken by the huge blasts (the equivalent of 100 Oklahoma City bombings, and using the same explosives) that reduced the neighboring peaks to barren flatlands.

Walk up a well-worn footpath on Gibson’s property and the greensward ends abruptly, with visitors left looking out over mountaintop removal sites covering some 12,000 acres, all of it being torn asunder by such big operators as Arch Coal, Horizon Natural Resources and Massey Energy. Rising next to the mining sites are vast mounds of earth thinly covered by struggling green grass (itself a non-native species imported from Asia). These are the so-called “valley fills,” pulverized mountaintops laced with all manner of toxic materials. Dumped into the hollows between mountains, they bury or add poisonous flavoring to the alpine streams that provide drinking water to local communities. They appear as obscene unnatural bulges on the landscape, with the grass covering described by one activist as “lipstick on a corpse.”

Gibson, who is small but fierce and wears a green fluorescent cap and T-shirt that proclaims his 20-year fight against the coal giants, shows pictures of Kayford in the 1950s, when it had 800 homes, schools, five churches and a movie theater. “The last house burned down in 1993,” Gibson says. “They’ve destroyed a whole culture here; I’m all that’s left. The mining companies told me, “You’re an island and we’re an ocean.” We have 39 seams of coal here, but it’s a land trust now, and there are some things that money won’t buy. MTR [mountaintop removal] has destroyed a million acres through Appalachia and less than two percent of it has been “reclaimed.””

The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) states that after extraction is complete MTR sites must be returned to their “approximate original contour,” but elevation is apparently not part of the bargain for state environmental departments. The former mountains remain as barren plateaus, and any regeneration will take centuries. Reclamation efforts are scattered and largely pitiful, because the “industry-ready” flat land is left both polluted and inaccessible. A few housing complexes and a prison were built on old mine sites. The industry’s shining reclamation example is a golf course surrounded by active mining sites in Kentucky.

Mountaintop removal mining from a Southwings flight.© Jim Motavalli

Blasted Lives

It isn’t just the land that is destroyed by this brutal form of mining. There’s a tremendous human toll, as drinking water is polluted, housing foundations cracked and roads potholed by overloaded coal trucks. At a hearing in Charleston sponsored by the watchdog groups Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalachian residents spoke out about what has happened to their communities—and their lives—since mining operations came to town.

Vernon Haltom, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch, pointed out that many of the victims of MTR are schoolchildren. Just over the ridge from Larry Gibson’s home is the Marsh Fork Elementary School, whose 230 students study 400 yards below a 2.8-billion-gallon Massey Energy coal sludge dam that, from the air, resembles a giant lake. If it lets go—and Massey Energy has been responsible for more than half the state’s spills—there would certainly be fatalities. There’s also a huge coal silo (a second was proposed) perched above the kids” heads. Some children at the school reportedly exhibit symptoms of black lung disease, and a test of seven dust samples by engineer Scott Simonton found coal dust in all of them. “This dust has known health hazards, especially in the inhalation exposure route,” Simonton said in a letter last year. Protests against that second silo led to the arrest last March of 13 activists sitting in at the office of West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.

The testimony of MTR victims is deeply moving, about dreams denied and homeplaces defiled. Janice Nease, also of Coal River Mountain Watch, grew up as a 10th generation resident of Kayford and remembers an idyllic place that provided both food and spiritual solace. “Those mountains are a part of us,” she says. “When I look at them, I know there is a creator.”

Brenda Urias of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has similar memories of walking barefoot in the creeks among minnows and tadpoles, and seeking out her favorite crooked tree in the forest when she needed to be alone. “It was peaceful and quiet and beautiful,” she says, “but we woke up one morning 20 years ago and found that the well dug by my husband’s grandfather was almost dry. What came out had an oily sheen. Now our water has an arsenic level of 2.0 per million, when they tell us that anything above 0.1 is unsafe. My three-year-old granddaughter still has to bathe in that water. When she gets in her kiddie pool, it’s full of black specks.”

Activist Brenda Urias: her water is full of arsenic.© Jim Motavalli

Homeowners in the Appalachians say that complaining to the state departments of environmental protection is usually a futile task, because the agencies are perceived as rubber stamps for the coal companies. Chuck Nelson of Sylvester, West Virginia, for 30 years a deep miner, watched his industry transition rapidly from underground extraction to MTR, which he says is “quicker and cheaper, and employs fewer people.”

Soon, MTR came to Sylvester and removed the ridge that served as a windbreak for the community. Coal dust an inch thick settled on Nelson’s house and cars—and that of his brother and father nearby. Nelson’s mining job was soon in jeopardy because he complained about the coal

dust. He started to prepare a lawsuit against the coal operator but he and his family were offered buyouts before it could proceed.

Larry Bush of Save Our Cumberland Mountains was also a coal miner in southwestern Virginia. Being in the business hasn’t softened him to the effects of MTR. “The bulldozers came in and destroyed 6,300 acres of abundant wildlife forest around my home,” he says. “In Wise County where I live, 100,000 acres are gone and another 40,000 are under permit. They’re killing everything around us. This isn’t mining—it’s rape.”

Ann League, vice president of Save Our Cumberland Mountains, built her dream house in the Elk Valley of Tennessee, next to the second largest surface mine in the state. There, bobcats and grouse coexisted with active strip mining. But MTR, arriving a mile and a half down the road, changed the rules. A terraced valley fill looms over her town now, criss-crossed with huge erosion gulleys. Coal truck traffic is constant, and the air concussions blow her doors closed. The stream running alongside her house no longer supports life.

Larry Gibson, the last holdout on Kayford Mountain.© Jim Motavalli

Fighting Back

Some MTR opponents think they can stop Big Coal with federal legislation. The Clean Water Protection Act (HR 2169), which would prevent the dumping of mining waste into streams (effectively stopping the mining) now has 83 co-sponsors in the House, but getting a Congress obsessed with the “energy independence” promised by liquid coal to pass it will be difficult.

Last March, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers moved to block permits for four MTR mines in West Virginia, citing what he called “the alarming cumulative stream loss” caused by the crushing weight of valley fills. The decision throws the permits back to the agency that approved them, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is being asked to perform a full assessment of the fills” impact on mountain streams.

It was a major victory, but activists have been down this road before. Joe Lovett, a hardworking attorney with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, notes that this is the third federal decision ruling that MTR violates the Clean Water Act. In the two previous cases, big coal and its powerful lobbying forces were ultimately victorious when the rulings were overturned by the conservative Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.

Mary Ann Hitt, executive director of the grassroots group Appalachian Voices, describes the Fourth Circuit as “a pretty tough venue. With this latest federal ruling, which instructs the Army Corps to issue more detailed and site-specific permits, we’re hopeful it won’t have the same outcome.” Hitt adds that, in Appalachia, federal laws “have been interpreted in the most generous way possible for the coal companies. The onus is always on the communities to prove that laws are being broken. And the communities are always far outgunned when it comes to money and attorneys.”

The cemetery on Larry Gibson’s property is being undermined by MTR. © Jim Motavalli

The challenges will become even steeper if the Bush Administration gets its way. On August 22, it proposed a new regulation that would “reform” existing mining laws by validating all the industry’s current mountaintop practices, including valley fills. The law would remove nearly all legal grounds for fighting the excesses of mountaintop removal mining.

It’s a giveaway to the coal industry, absolutely,” says Margaret Janes, senior policy analyst with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment (ACEE). “The federal Office of Surface Mining has been trying to weaken the rules for the last six years. This basically exempts the crux of mining from a very important aspect of what current law requires.” Activist groups will fight the new regulation, but the outcome is uncertain.

Joe Lovett, ACEE founder, executive director and lead attorney, says the Bush ruling “is a fairly important blow to federal enforcement, taking away one of the most important tools on enforcing buffer zones,” but he adds that the Clean Water Act remains a potent force against mountaintop abuses. Lovett adds that the Bush Administration, which has routinely supported industry positions, is thinking ahead; it wants to tie the hands of a successor who’d be more likely to enforce the existing mining laws.

The Wal-Mart Economy

A visitor to coal country might be surprised at the level of support that the big operators still enjoy among residents of the region. It’s impossible to understand without considering the economy of a state such as West Virginia, where the biggest employers for a population of 1.8 million are the state government and low-wage Wal-Mart. In a state with some of the U.S.’s poorest counties, more than 16 percent live below the federal poverty line.

Without many other options, West Virginians are receptive when the mining industry says the magic word: “jobs.” The irony, however, is that big coal likes MTR precisely because it is not labor-intensive. A few truck and crane operators can do very quickly what once took years for a phalanx of union miners. In the last 10 years, mine production increased 32 percent but coal employment dropped 29 percent.

Governor Manchin changed the border signs from “West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful” to “Open for Business,” and coal interests there almost always get what they want. In Appalachia, coal is a deeply powerful industry that has been in control of the region’s economic, social and political life for 100 years. In the last two decades its political grip has only weakened slightly. And alternative economic development is still in the fledgling stage.

Grassroots groups in West Virginia do talk about other income generators, including custom furniture-making and wind power (already a significant income generator in west Texas and upstate New York). Carol Warren and Todd Garland of Webster Springs, West Virginia look at their small wind generator and hear its gentle shushing as “the sound of coal not being mined.”

The relatively small, 44-turbine, 66-megawatt Mountaineer wind project (owned by Florida Power & Light) runs along the spine of Backbone Mountain in northeastern West Virginia’s Tucker County, and it could be a harbinger of things to come. A National Academy of Sciences review released last May indicated that wind power in Appalachia could help offset greenhouse gas emissions from coal and other fossil fuels, but that the industry itself lacked effective regulation. In West Virginia, wind projects are reviewed by the state Public Service Commission, which admits it does not have the staff to adequately review wildlife and other impacts.

There are no less than four pending wind projects in the state, mostly in the windier, wealthier and less coal-endowed eastern region. But some activists in eastern West Virginia oppose big wind. Groups such as Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy worry about reduction in their property values, negative effects on tourism and, frequently mentioned, bat fatalities.

But for Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch, whose office in Whitesville is surrounded by MTR sites, this is “very much a class and privilege situation. It’s very insulting to the people who live in the coal-producing areas of West Virginia and endure the blasting—more than three million pounds of explosives

per day—and air pollution,” she says. “My father died from black lung disease to provide energy for this country, and these people don’t want to look at a wind turbine? They’re certainly willing to use the coal energy provided by my family’s blood, sweat and tears.”

Bonds works in the shadow of Coal River Mountain, which if Big Coal gets its way and permits are issued will soon be reduced to a flattened and polluted plain. Even without peer-reviewed scientific studies, it seems fair to say that such destruction would displace more birds and bats than a whole forest of wind turbines ever could. Tests show that Coal River Mountain has excellent potential for wind development, but not if MTR blows it to a fraction of its original elevation. By that time, the abundant resource that was Coal River Mountain would live on only in the memories of the people who once made it their “homeplace.”