november 2009

Michael Schnayerson

A Valley Under Siege

An Excerpt from Coal River

By Michael Shnayerson

In 2008 Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson followed up his excellent reporting for that magazine on the unfolding crisis in southeastern Appalachia stemming from mountaintop removal coal mining with an entire book, Coal River, which chronicled the bold, daring legal maneuvers of attorney Joe Lovett and the anti-MTR fervor of activist Judy Bonds, founder of the grassroots organization Coal River Mountain Watch, that was aggressively speaking out on the threat posed to the life and culture in the Coal River Valley region. Years later, the fight goes on, and the Prologue of Shnayerson’s book, a systematic cataloguing of mountaintop removal mining’s destructive impact on a land and its unique culture remains stirring and timely. Mr. Shnayerson has granted permission for to lead off this special section on the crisis in Appalachia with his Prologue to Coal River. A link to purchase the book is provided at the end of the text.

Something looks very wrong with southern West Virginia.

Seen from a plane, its forested ridges lie below, stretching like waves into the misty distance. But there amid them, like cancerous growths, lie large gray patches. They might be clearings for new subdivisions if they weren’t so remote. They might be a blight, except that there’s nothing for a blight to  to infect: everything, from trees to grass, is gone. More than anything, they look like crop circles, mysterious signs made to be read from above. But made by whom? And signifying what?

On Interstate 77, running south from Charleston with its gold-domed capitol, the hills on either side of the highway rise and dip with not a tree out of place. No strange clearings here. In ten minutes comes the turnoff for Rout 94 east and then, a short way further, Route 3 south, the two-lane blacktop that snakes through the Coal River valley. No clearings here yet, either.

Soon the hills on either side move in, narrowing the sky to a slit. The road bobs down and up and down again, under canopies of trees and around hairpin curves. Then the trees recede, and the valley widens just enough to hold a scattering of small houses, sunlit at noon but soon shadowed by the steep hillside behind them. The homes are separated from Route 3 by a stream overlaid with wood plank crossings, like drawbridges over a moat.

This is the heart of the Appalachian coalfields—not fields at all,  but rugged, forested hills that still hold billions of tons of coal. No shiny new McDonald’s restaurants or Burger Kings punctuate Route 3’s 56-mile passage from Racine south to Beckley. No hotels or motels, no Home Depots or Targets, no Applebee’s restaurants or Olive Gardens or TGI Friday’s. The Coal River valley is too steep for the malls and crossroads that could support such establishments. More to the point, it’s too poor, and the coal companies own most of the land anyway. The residents of the Coal River valley are safe from the restless spread of franchise businesses of almost every kind. It’s about all they are safe from.

In some ways, the valley confounds expectations. There are no tarpaper shacks, no miners in overalls with coal-smudged faces, no old jalopies. A few of the roadside houses have porches, but on none of them is an autistic mountain boy playing a banjo. The houses are wood or brick, neatly kept, and the pickup trucks that stop at the gas marts are mostly late-model American brands.

Yet coal’s legacy, in the valley that bears its name, is everywhere. Nearly all the hamlets on Route 3 are old coal towns, named after the camps’ founders—Edwight, Stickney, Pettus—or, as with Eunice and Dorothy, the founders’ daughters. In the 1910s, when train tracks began to stretch like vines through the valley, coal operators put up company towns here almost overnight. That was when miners lived in slapped-together two-family cottages with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Those cottages are long gone, as are the company stores and the company scrip the miners were paid, instead of money, for their long hours underground. But the towns remain, in some semblance or another. Some are mere meadows, with a few remaining foundations turned to mossy mounds. Others are just clusters of houses without a store. A few have gas marts, and fewer still a second or third store that might qualify them as a proper American town.

So close in are the hillsides that a visitor might be forgiven for thinking, as he drives through, that he’s seeing all the life there is to see here. Most residents of the valley live up the hollows that go off like ribs from Route 3’s curving spine. The roads that wind up those hollows grow narrow and give way to dirt. The houses tucked into the nooks of those hollows are mostly hand-built. Some are cottages, and some are just shacks, and many of the inhabitants of those dwellings do speak in an Appalachian patois that mixes the accents of their Scotch and Irish and English forebears. Some of them don’t come down much, and if they do, they go much farther than the nearest town.

On Route 3, the first sign of mining in the vally is typically a coal truck that comes into view. The road has no shoulder to speak of, and in places an outcropping of rock from the hillside extends just overhead, so that a car has only inches of leeway as the truck hurtles by. Coall-truck drivers are often paid by the haul, not by the hour, and so the faster they arrive at their destination, the sooner they can start their next haul. If they bear full loads and a car appears suddenly in front of them, the trucks can’t always stop in time. The local papers announce coal-truck accidents with depressing frequency, usually with fatalities and pictures of a car or pickup crunched to smithereens.

Two miles north of Whitesville—roughly the valley’s social midpoint—looms the next indication of mining in the valley. Fences and “Keep Out” signs surround an industrial site of drab, factorylike buildings and conveyor belts. This is a coal-preparation plant, not a mine. Coal from various mines is brought here, by belt and by truck, to be cleaned of debris, crushed into chunks or dust, and loaded onto trains for market. Massey Energy, the large, Virginia-based company that owns the operation, calls it Elk Run, after the elk that used to run here before it was built.

After the small, sleepy coal towns that line much of Route 3’s northern stretch, Whitesville comes as a shock. Once it was a thriving town, the hub of commerce between Charleston and Beckley. Now it looks desolate, its storefronts abandoned, its streets and sidewalks still. Hardly a car rolls by or lingers at the curb; even the parking meters are gone. Aside from the gas marts at either end of town, few businesses of any kind remain; two are funeral homes, and two are florists that serve the funeral homes. West Virginia may rank forty-ninth in prosperity among America’s fifty states, yielding only to Mississippi, but its citizens feel strongly about funeral flowers. At the valley’s largest cemetery, almost every gravestone is decorated with a bouquet.

At Whitesville’s south end, Route 3 crosses a set of train tracks. At least once a day, traffic backs up on each side as a loaded coal train, impossibly long, passes slowly, slowly by. For a moment or two after the train passes, Whitesville seems a boomtown once again, with bustling commerce. But then the road clears, and a silence settles back, sure as coal dust, over Whitesville’s desolate Main Street.

For this industry, this is a boom. Prices have soared, and demand is keen. Coal trains traverse the valley day and night. Coal trucks race up and down Route 3. Barges piled high with coal go down the broad Kanawha River, to the northwest. Yet little of this wealth has trickled down the hillsides to the Coal River valleys, as it did in earlier booms. Whitesville resembles a wartime town pillaged by an advancing army. In a way, that’s what it is.

You have to get up to a ridgetop to see that army’s path. The view from Larry Gibson’s place will do just fine. Gibson lives on the top of Kayford Mountain, just east of Whitesville. His ancestors moved to the valley in the late 1700s and acquired 500 acres of the mountaintop by wedding dowry in 1886. Twenty years later, a land-company agent from out of state gulled an illiterate forebear into marking his X on a contract that transferred most of the land for “one dollar and considerations.” Almost everyone in the Coal River valley has a story like that. The Gibsons, unlike most families, managed to keep fifty acres at the top of the mountain. Gibson lives there still. His mountaintop is a little green island surrounded, as far as the eye can see, by brown, raw, devastated earth.

This is what lies behind the picturesque backdrop of roadside hills in the Coal River valley: mountains reduced to rubble by the practice the industry calls mountaintop mining and its critics call mountaintop removal. The landscape from Gibson’s place is so much lower than his mountaintop compound that it’s hard to image the forested ridges that rose here before. It’s like a man-made Grand Canyon, except that the Grand Canyon teems with life, and this panorama has none—none except the men who work the distant dozers and huge-wheeled dump trucks, their motors a constant, hornetlike hum. An underground mine needs hundreds of miners, setting the blasts and operating the machinery to push rubble into valley streams below. That’s one reason Whitesville looks as desperate as it does. The coal industry is making a killing. The Coal River valley is just getting killed.

The coal companies have tried hard to buy Gibson out, because, he says, Kayford Mountain has more than a dozen seams of coal, worth millions of dollars, directly under his property. Gibson has just turned them down. They want him gone, too, because he still bears witness to what they’re doing here. That’s rare. The coal companies own or lease nearly all the land outside the valley towns—the legacy of similar land grabs one hundred years ago by out of state speculators—and for the most part they can gate their operations, keeping people a ridge or two away from their mountaintop sites. Gibson looks out and reports on every new ridgetop and valley destroyed in the Kayford area. His mountaintop compound, with its half-dozen shacks and family cemetery, is a vantagepoint for anyone from out of the area who wants to see what mountaintop mining is about.

Miners hate that, and they find ways to let Gibson know it. They’ve shot up his place when he was there; his trailer has the bullet holes to show for it. They’ve torched one of his cottages. They’ve shot one of his dogs, and tried to hang another. They’ve driven his pickup off the road, tipping it into a ditch, and paused long enough to laugh at him trying to get out. Gibson keeps a growing list of all the acts of violence and vandalism committed against him and his property. Currently, it totals 118. The stress of these threats—and of making his mountain a cause—led his wife to leave him not long ago. Gibson says she told him if he stopped fighting for the land, the marriage might survive. But the mountain is his heritage, he says. How can he walk away from that?

Kayford is just one of nearly a dozen large mountaintop-mining sites that ring the Coal River valley like numerals on a watch face. It’s one of 229 surface mines in West Virginia, most amid these crenelated ridges of the Allegheny Plateau. Beyond southern West Virginia, the coalfields seep into three other states: eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and western Virginia. Hundreds of mountains in this region have been destroyed, reduced to half their heights, their ancient forest covers eradicated. The Environmental Protection Agency, even while sanctioning the practice, concluded in 2003 that more than 380,000 acres—all rich and uniquely diverse temperate forest—were destroyed between 1985 and 2001 as a result of mountaintop mining in Appalachia. Another way to put it, the EPA acknowledged, was that 3.4 percent of the land of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and eastern Tennessee had been leveled or buried. That figure is probably more than 100,000 acres out of date now. [Ed. Note: It is—the estimate is now more than 500,000 acres destroyed.] In those same sixteen years, the EPA estimated, more than 1,200 miles of valley streams were affected by mountaintop-mining waste. Of those, more than 700 miles were buried entirely. That figure is old now, too. Assuming the practice continues, the EPA suggested, more than 1.4 million acres will be destroyed before all the mountaintop coal in Appalachia is mind—in sum, almost as large an area as Delaware.

This would never happen in rural Connecticut, Maine, northern California, or other places where such devastation would stir outcry and people with money and power would stop it. But Appalchia is a land unto itself, cut off by its mountains from the east and Midwest. Its people are for the most part too poor and too cowed after a century of harsh treatment by King Coal to think they can stop their world from being blasted away.

The story of mountaintop mining—why it happens and what its consequences are—is still new to most Americans. They have no idea their their country’s physical legacy—the purple mountains majesty that is America—is being destroyed at the rate of several ridgetops per week, the result of three million pounds of explosives set off every day. They remain oblivious to the fact that, along with the mountains, a mountain culture is being lost. The valley’s Boone County is named after Daniel Boone, who traded ginseng and furs here with the Shawnees and Cherokees. There are Clays from Clay’s Branch and Pettrys from Pettry’s Bottom. There are Stoves and Cantleys and Jarrells and Webbs and Bonds, all descended from the valley’s first pioneer families. Americans outside the Coal River valley move, on average, 11.7 times in their lives, often state to state and coast to coast. Here, nearly everyone traces his lineage in the valley back six or eight generations, some ten or twelve. That lineage is the braid of a mountain culture unique to these towns and hills. The valley has rich traditions of storytelling, quilting, and woodcrafts, ramp feasts, home gardening and canning, moonshine stills, bluegrass music, and more. All that, along with the hills, is under siege every day.

If Don Blankenship, chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, were asked why he blasts the mountains instead of mining underground, he would likely view the question as naïve. Massey—biggest, most aggressive, and most hated of the coal companies in this southern part of the state—has led the way in mountaintop mining because in the long run it’s cheaper, much cheaper, than labor-intensive underground mining in many areas, especially the Coal River valley. Massey must compete with Arch, Peabody, and Consolidated, among other Appalachian coal companies, for its markets. All, in turn, must compete with the big, open pits of Wyoming and other western states. And the United States must compete with China, where labor and life are cheap and environmental standards are low. Capitalism is just survival of the fittest, Don likes to say, and in this unforgiving market mountaintop mining is the only way for an Appalachian coal company to survive.

This is a story of great forces in America destroying America itself: the need for cheap fuel, even if it pollutes more than any other kind and puts the planet at risk; the need of the companies that mine coal to make profits, whatever the environmental cost; the brute force of the coal industry that buys political influence with campaign contributions, gets its own lobbyists put in charge of the state and federal agencies assigned to regulate it, and pushes for loopholes in laws it hasn’t already broken. And looming over the industry, the great force of all: Wall Street.

Yet in the spring of 2004, when I made my own first visit to the Coal River valley, a few stubborn West Virginians were fighting those forces. One was a boyish-looking environmental lawyer from Charleston. Another was a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter, raised in a hollow outside Whitesville. With them were a few dozen locals who felt they had no choice but to fight the coal companies destroying their land and way of life. This ragtag band had none of the money and power of King Coal. But they had won some battles, and for all the scorn Don Blankenship heaped upon them, they were about to win some more.

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