november 2009

'Appalachian Soul,' by Great American Taxi (Slideshow by Michele Griffin)

Coal River Journal

By Jen Osha

Jen Osha

Last Stand At Coal River Mountain

We’ve got to save [Coal River mountain.]  It's a symbol.  And not only a symbol, it’s the only thing left where 20 years from now, someone here might be able to survive on their own with fresh water and wildlife…I think a lot of the residents here see that mountain as sort of like an Alamo.  It’s the last stand.—Judy Bonds, Rock Creek. 

For those who call the valley home, Coal River Mountain is the source of seasonal feasts and family adventures. In the colder months, the mountain provides firewood and game to local avid hunters.  In the spring, its time to dig ramps, pick wild greens, search for molly moochers and hunt turkey. Summertime brings berry picking, ginseng hunting, and family excursions. Just pack up a four-wheeler with necessities and off you go with courageous family and friends, up the steep trail to Pond Knob. There you can camp where the little C-45 Army plane crashed in 1958 and tell ghost stories and hunt arrowheads and send a brave youngun to pass his test to find water at the spring before darkness falls.

For me, Coal River Mountain is a true friend. The mountain has gifted me with my first successful hunting trip, my first morel (molly moocher), my first ginseng, and my first arrowhead. I’ve gotten lost and found, been hailed on and half frozen, and compiled a list of things I learned well never to do again. I can point at these places as I share my stories, can name the hollows and trace the veins of coal and mines like honeycombs through the mountain. It is a mountain small enough to make friends, yet large enough to smack you around if you forget who’s in charge.

Right now, at this moment perhaps, Massey Energy is blasting on Coal River Mountain. Already, some of these special places are gone forever. I cannot express through these words the pain of that loss, nor the insignificance of my feelings in comparison to the families who have lived at the skirts of this mountain for generations. It’s been deep mined and strip mined, but it was still intact. It still offered its resources and its protection to the many families it sheltered. And as Kayford Mountain is blasted apart to the north, and Cherry Pond mountain destroyed to the west, Coal River mountain is the last intact mountain in the watershed. It is, as Judy Bonds notes above, the last stand.  

Blasting On Coal River Mountain

Coal River Mountain has the highest peaks ever slated for destruction in West Virginia. In December of 2008, a study by Downstream Strategies also showed those same high peaks have wind resources up to the highest rating on the scale. Quoting from, “When externalities such as public health and environmental quality are factored in, a mountaintop removal mine ends up losing $600 million over its expected 17 year life. The costs of these externalities are taken in by the public in the form of health expenses and environmental clean up costs as well as lost resources, like ginseng and wild game. A wind farm would remain profitable over its life, forever.” Coal River Mountain has even gained international attention: Coal River Mountain Watch is working with Google Earth on a presentation to the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen to contrast the proposed 328 megawatt wind farm to the destruction of approximately 6,000 acres of the mountain through mountaintop removal.   

“I would love to see the wind turbines go up on that mountain,” says Coal River resident Debbie Jarrell.  “That would be a ray of hope for me. It would be a ray of hope for a lot of young people in the area. That would mean jobs, that would mean that we could keep some of our clean water. That would mean that hopefully other people would come into the community because it’s not being destroyed.” 

For many people across the nation, Coal River Mountain stands as a symbol of the choice between coal and alternative energy. In addition to the impending destruction of both the mountain and hope for local, sustainable jobs, residents have an even more dangerous and immediate concern. By allowing blasting to occur so close to the largest slurry impoundment in North America, our government officials are choosing to show blatant disregard for the lives of hundreds of downstream residents in favor of short term profits and a permitting process that shows no common sense.

No common sense?  Well, see what you think.

The Brushy Fork slurry impoundment is permitted to hold over nine billion gallons of slurry and stand 900 feet high from the toe to the crest, which is higher than the New River Gorge Bridge! Rick Eades, a respected hydrologist, questioned "blasting where underground mines existed in the Eagle coal seam, the possibilities for adversely affecting near surface bedrock in a way that could possibly enhance pathways for slurry to be released via the subsurface and bypass the dam."

What Dr. Eades is concerned about is the possibility of a slurry breakthrough not through the dam itself, like in Buffalo Creek, but into an underground mine shaft and out the side of the mountain. This type of slurry breakthrough is called a blowout, as was the cause of the massive slurry spill in Martin County, KY, in 2000. 

Brushy Fork Map

Brushy Fork Impoundment
Map created by Downstream Strategies ( in conjunction with Aurora Lights. (

The map above should give you an idea why so many people are concerned about the safety of the impoundment. The toxic slurry is dammed up between the ridges, with mine shafts both on the sides and below the billions of gallons of slurry. These mine shafts, as well as the dam itself, open into populated hollows. Anyone who spends time on the mountain knows the many places old underground mines literally “punch out” the side of the mountain. A “punch out” becomes a “blow out” when water, or slurry, breaks into the mine shaft and explodes out of the mountain. 

The blasting occurring right now on Coal River Mountain is allowed as close as 200 feet from the impoundment. And if that wasn’t crazy enough, the area where Massey is currently blasting sits directly on top of a “no mining” zone. This no mining zone applies to the Eagle Coal seam, which is underneath the current blasting. I was puzzled by the legality of allowing blasting to occur directly above a no mining area, in such close proximity to such a enormous toxic impoundment in an area honeycombed with deep mines. I called the DEP to check, and was told the blasting would not affect anything below it, meaning that the rock keeping the slurry from rupturing into underground mine shafts would not be affected by dynamiting directly above it.

Jack Spadaro, former superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in West Virginia, cleared it all up for me: “Blasting in the vicinity of a coal waste impoundment can cause problems, can cause fracturing of rock and create situations where there might be stability problems with the impoundment.” Spadaro recommended a “thorough geo-technical evaluation of the whole impoundment and its stability in relation to the underground mine workings” before any additional slurry was added to the impoundment. 

The impoundment is also located within a populated area. Hundreds of families live in the towns directly in the slurry’s path. In the emergency warning plan written by Marfork Coal, it states that if this dam would fail then a 40-foot wall of sludge, cresting at 72 feet, would engulf communities downstream as far as Prenter, where the wall of sludge would still be 20 feet high. This emergency plan does not address the locations where sludge would blow out if the impoundment collapsed into underground mine shafts. Additionally, the evacuation plan would direct many residents to evacuate directly into the path of an oncoming release. 

How can we let this kind of thing go on before our eyes/When coal mine bosses trade our lives for nickels & for dimes/I beg you folks to stop these men, don’t let this happen twice/Can’t you see those people drowning there, can’t you hear their mournful cries/I hear them in the falling rain they haunt me in the snow/Buffalo Creek Buffalo Creek, a coal mine bosses’ show/Buffalo Creek Buffalo Creek, when will you people know/And when will you folks tell these boys to pack their gear and go

Mike Morningstar (left) and Rick Roberts
‘Buffalo Creek’ by Mike Morningstar (

West Virginia native Mike Morningstar contributed “Buffalo Creek” to raise awareness about the dangers of slurry impoundments such as Brushy Fork. "My brother, Steve, and I were staying in a small hunting camp on Bull Creek, W.Va. in the spring of 1972, when the Buffalo Creek Flood occurred. My brother's good friend, Keith, worked for the Department of Natural Resources, and was called out to help in the cleanup after the disaster. He told us about pulling the bodies of dead children from the mud and debris along that hollow. That experience left him angry, and his anger was contagious. My brother and I wrote the song in about an hour and I've been singing it for 37 years in hopes that people will not forget those children who lost everything."

In “Buffalo Creek,” Mike sings, I beg you folks to stop these men/don’t let this happen twice. Community residents certainly had memories of Buffalo Creek in mind on October 19th when they hand delivered a letter to Governor Joe Manchin asking him to rescind the mountaintop mining permits on the mountain. “As residents of West Virginia’s Coal River Valley we write you to declare a state of emergency. Coal River Mountain is our last mountain untouched by mountaintop removal and it is in imminent danger of blasting. This would not only threaten our communities, it would also destroy our chance to have permanent jobs and renewable energy through ridge-top wind power. You have the power to rescind these permits.”

Statement delivered to Governor Joe Manchin

Across the nation, there are sit-ins, rallies, and protests to raise awareness about the urgent need to put an immediate stop to the blasting on Coal River Mountain.  On November 2nd, there will be a day of unprecedented coordinated action among WV high schools and colleges. “We are organizing the largest youth-run call-in day in the history of the WV climate movement,” says Danny Chiotos, SEAC West Virginia Youth Organizer. “Coal River Mountain, the best example of our potential to build green jobs in the coalfields, is under attack and it's up to us to join coalfield residents to demand its preservation.” 

Chloe and Leah, of the RISE collective, donated the song that speaks the loudest to our actions and inactions in this injustice.  In their hard hitting call for people to “stand up” and take personal responsibility, Leah of the RISE collective had this to say: "Appalachia is a deeply sacred place. It holds a wealth of knowledge in ecology, and plant diversity that rivals even the Amazon. But beyond that, it is a magical mystical space to simply take a breath in. It is no great challenge for anyone to look at the excessive damage of mountaintop removal and recognize that it is one more painful step away from a balanced existence within the earth. This kind of mining is another crystalline example of corporate growth at the expense of the working class, offering short term jobs to hard working locals who need the income—but are given little explanation or apology for the devastating long term effects that mountaintop removal has on everyone.”

‘Cause 500 hundred years ago, when these trees were more dense/and the colors pristine, so the chaos made sense/There was no knowing of the loss of a whole mountain a mountain that I call home/and these same hills roll on and on, without mention of vanish or of who to belong/and these same mountains that go to peace long before the noose/and now that soon is really gone, now that too is nearly gone/ so tell me what have we done as a civilization to destroy in our own wake that/metaphorical hand that feeds us we are trashing our own birthday cake

‘Scale Down’ by R.I.S.E. (formerly Rising Appalachia) (

 ((Audio at

Whether Coal River mountain is a symbol of alternative energy, the last stand for coalfield justice, or has proven a fast and true friend, stand in solidarity with the people of Coal River and of the Appalachian coalfields and implore the Obama administration to use its influence with Governor Manchin to stop the blasting and save Coal River Mountain. Go to to see how you can get involved, or visit for more music, stories and pictures from the Coal River valley.

All music referenced from the benefit CD Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home
A unique combination of music, visuals, and community involvement, Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home unleashes the passion and urgency empowering the movement against mountaintop removal at this critical moment.  All proceeds from the album will be used for grants and other educational and charitable purposes consistent with Aurora Lights' mission to raise awareness of the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

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