Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos
Maria Gunnoe stands on a reclaimed coal mine site near her home in Bob White, in Boone County. The mountains nearby were once lush and green and covered with trees, she said, but now little can grow there because mining has devastated the land.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Maria Gunnoe's voice echoed beneath the West Virginia Capitol rotunda. A small woman with cascading hair, she stood almost on her toes.
"Please listen up," she said. "Our wells, our land, our homes, our culture, our very lives are being threatened. Will it take a tragedy for us to be heard?"
She was preaching to the choir. It was E-Day, Feb. 14, and Ms. Gunnoe was speaking to more than 150 people from West Virginia environmental organizations that for years have rallied, protested and sued to fight mountaintop coal removal.
Click here to see and hear to an audio slide show about Larry Gibson and Maria Gunnoe, their West Virginia mountain homes and heritage and the changes they've seen from mining operations.
The main benefit of coal mining is obvious -- well-paying jobs in poor rural places -- but the drawbacks make up a lot of the "almost" that separates West Virginia from Heaven.
Coal companies are clear-cutting timber and blasting away mountain peaks. They are filling valleys with leftover rocks, trees and soil. They are injecting coal sludge into abandoned underground mines or storing it in man-made impoundment ponds, many of which perch high above people's homes.
Metals churned up and stored behind earthen dams can leach into ground and well water. Deforested hills erode quickly and accelerate flooding. Impoundment reservoirs have been known to collapse with catastrophic consequences -- most notoriously on this day in 1972 when Buffalo Creek in Logan County was inundated and 125 people lost their lives.
As a result, in a state that has bred some of the country's most storied citizen battles against the powers that be, mountaintop mining has matured as a galvanizing issue in West Virginia.
The rise of mountaintop mining
The first mountaintop in West Virginia was mined in 1966. By 2000, some 13,000 acres had been cleared. As of 2004, 70 of West Virginia's 544 coal mines involved mountaintop removal, accounting for 26 percent of the 153.6 million tons of coal produced in the state, according to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
"The pace is unbelievable," said Ben Stout, an aquatic biologist at Wheeling Jesuit College who has studied waste impoundments and the effects of blasting near mountaintop sites. "These guys can drill 30 feet and blast it off every day."
When the famous Mother Jones organized miners in the late 19th century and the United Mine Workers stood against federal troops in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the fight was over long hours, low pay and exceedingly dangerous working conditions underground. Hired guns killed people accused as rabble-rousers.
Today, the battles are mostly legal as mountaintop mining opponents focus mostly on safety and environmental degradation. But they retain a David v. Goliath character.
Massey Energy Co., whose subsidiaries operate many of the coal mines that concern environmentalists in West Virginia, is the leading coal producer in the state Virginia and the fourth largest in the country, with annual revenues of more than $2 billion.
Repeated calls to Massey's spokesperson in Charleston last week went unreturned.
But Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, defended mountaintop mining and the people who do it. "They are proud of what they do, and they live in the areas where they work, where they fished and hunted as children.
"A minimal percentage of land is disturbed by all types of mining," he said. Mountaintop removal is "a responsible method of mining, recognized in state and federal surface mining acts. It is a methodical, well engineered, sophisticated method and it does its best to protect the environment. ... There's not a drop of water that doesn't go through treatment."
Mr. Raney allowed that mountaintop mining may result in "a reduction in elevation," but proponents consider this a win-win -- coal gets extracted and West Virginia gets valuable pieces of flat real estate.
"Level land is such a rare commodity that it's a shame not to coordinate future development" with mountaintop removal, Mr. Raney said.
On its Web site, Massey Energy Co. cites such successes: the Big Sandy Airport in Prestonsburg, Ky., the FBI Fingerprinting compound in Harrison County and a high school, a shopping mall, an industrial park and golf course.
The dangers of mountaintop removal usually do not present horrifying dramas featuring a rescue team, a ticking clock and a countable number of lives at stake. And you can't even see most of West Virginia's topless mountains unless you board a plane or drive to the top of a peak with a view.
But according to Vivian Stockman, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Council, "We're fooling ourselves if we think the only safety issues are in underground mines. Over the last several years, at least 12 people have died in floods exacerbated by mountaintop removal." (The number is based on accounts from local newspapers since 2000.)
Every stream in West Virginia is under an official fish-consumption advisory because of mercury contamination.
And claims that safety rules are being followed do not allay fears.
Impoundments have broken many times and predate mountaintop removal. The Buffalo Creek disaster, which killed 125 people 34 years ago, is the best known. Days of heavy rain collapsed a dam and two impoundments holding 132 million gallons of slurry. The force of the spill, seven feet of water per second, washed away more than 4,000 homes and a dozen towns.
The Environmental Protection Agency called an impoundment failure in 2000 near Inez, Kentucky, "the worst environmental disaster in the southeastern United States."
Maria Gunnoe says her land has been devastated by coal companies that remove much of a mountain to mine coal. Her yard has been flooded and washed away, she said, because water runs unchecked off mountains that have had much of their vegetation removed.
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Larry Gibson carries milk to his small cabin atop Kayford Mountain in Boone County. Gibson remains on the mountain, even though he's now surrounded by coal mining operations that have leveled mountains nearby.
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Just after midnight, slurry from a 306 million gallon impoundment inundated an active underground mine and flowed out of two openings. No one was killed, but Wolf Creek and Coldwater Fork were seriously contaminated.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration determined that the coal company had "failed to follow its approved impoundment sealing plan."
In a 2004 study on well water quality in Mingo County, aquatic biologist Ben Stout took 15 samples and reported seven heavy metals in excess of water-quality standards, including lead, arsenic, barium, beryllium and selenium.
Dr. Dewey Sanderson, professor and chair of the Department of Geology at Marshall University in Huntington, said regulations aimed at ensuring safe containment of coal waste are "fairly strict," providing they are followed.
"I think the laws are there to minimize the hazard, but there are laws that say you're only allowed to drive 70 on the interstate, and many people speed."
By its nature, crushed coal mixed with water releases heavy metals, much as coffee grounds release the flavor of coffee and coffee beans don't, he said.
"When we mine coal, we are speeding up a process that naturally would take thousands of years to just a couple of years. I guess that's the downside of progress."
A center of activism
Compared to the rolling mountains in northern West Virginia, Boone County's mountains poke straight into the sky like steeples. Boone leads all counties in coal production and in mountaintop removals.
So it is probably no coincidence that Boone County has contributed many activists to the dozen-plus nonprofit groups that form the West Virginia Environmental Council, or E-Council. Its members are seeking injunctive relief, challenging permit applications, bringing lawsuits, holding protests and rallies and lobbying the state legislature.
Ms. Gunnoe, who spoke during E-Day at the Capitol, lives in Bob White, Boone County, on 40 acres below a 1,183-acre mountaintop removal site and two sediment control ponds. She is suing Jupiter Coal for damages she attributes to blasting, erosion and flooding.
Her garage is shifting, her front yard is sinking and five acres of her land has been washed away, she said.
"You don't come into a culture of people and say, 'You can move if you don't like it,' " she said. "This has been my family's home since the 1700s. I don't owe them anything and they just take and take."
Many activists occupy what Appalacians call "homeplaces," where their families have lived for generations. They are women as often as men, and many are elderly. They are long-time environmentalists, a smattering of young, novice organizers and people who have loved and buried miners.
In Whitesville, Freda Hudson Williams, who helped organize the Communications Workers of America in the 1940s and protested against strip mining in 1968, lives on her late-husband's family land and has been a complainant in several cases against Massey subsidiaries.
She currently is opposing Marfork Coal's permit request to remove 24 seams of coal near the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment, one of the nation's largest earthen dams.
"It's just across this mountain," she said, pointing out her kitchen window.
In a letter to U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., last month, she wrote, "Please take into consideration that there is no emergency evacuation plan."
In nearby Sylvester, Pauline Canterberry and Mary Miller are 70-somethings who call themselves the "dust busters."
In 1997, they led a petition drive to keep Massey's Elk Run Mining Co. from building a coal preparation plant. They presented the state Department of Environmental Protection with 51 letters in opposition from a town of 195 people.
The plant went into operation the following year. Within a month, the women said, the town was covered in coal dust. They have appealed to the DEP, the Office of Surface Mining, legislators and the media. In 2001, with others in Sylvester, they filed suit against Elk Run for damages.
"This house is appraised at $12,000," said Mrs. Miller, whose large, handsome brick home would fit nicely in Highland Park or Squirrel Hill. "That's not enough for burial expenses."
"What I got in life I got honestly" said her sidekick, whose husband and father both mined and died of black lung. "I'm glad they're not here to see what this kind of mining is doing to our home. This is not the American way."
The two dust-busters went around town with smudged faces, taking pictures of dust they wiped into little heaps on people's cars. They filmed coal dust being washed from people's porches and accumulations of coal dust in people's attics.
"We said we'd laugh our way through this or die crying," said Mrs. Canterberry. "I begged my husband not to go underground, but he chose to. Well, I don't choose to die that way," of black lung.
Judy Bonds of Rock Creek in Raleigh County lived directly below Brush Fork, the largest sludge impoundment dam in the state, near Whitesville, before she moved upstream in 2000.
"My family has lived in the Coal River valley for seven generations, but when I found out about that sludge dam it scared me to death," she said. "The coal company bought the whole hollow out. I go by the Vietnamese saying, 'Move away and live to fight another day.' But where we moved to, they're blasting. There's no place to run."
Ms. Bonds works on the Sludge Safety Project, which counted as a victory the introduction on Feb. 15 of a House bill that calls for a moratorium on new impoundments, on impoundment expansions and on permits to inject coal into abandoned underground mines. It also would provide for a study of existing coal-mine waste collections.
Don Garvin, who heads the E-Council's legislative lobby, called Delegate Larry Barker, D-Boone, and his five co-sponsors "very brave delegates."
Mr. Barker, who is serving his first term in office, said, "Someone has to represent these people. This is one group that has gotten the short end of the stick. It's not against the coal companies. Coal is how my county makes its living. But a billion gallon sludge pond isn't a pond. They're saying it hasn't given, that it's safe, but I'm sure they'd have said that about Buffalo Creek."
He said mine owners don't live in valleys under sludge ponds. "I wonder if they'd want me to walk around behind them 24/7 with a pitcher of sludge over their heads, promising I won't trip."
Perhaps the movement's most tenacious lifer is Larry Gibson, a short man who stands tall on Kayford Mountain, where his homeplace is the only peak left.
Mr. Gibson has painted on his cabin a message he also wears on a T-shirt: "We are the Keepers of the Mountains." One of his bumper stickers reads, "I've been to the mountaintop, but it wasn't there."
He has drawn hundreds of people up rutted dirt roads with dizzying plunges to see the flat-topping operations below. "You have to see it to believe it," he says.
Mr. Gibson's father and uncles were deep miners, but he stayed above ground. He left West Virginia for Ohio in 1957, when many coal-field jobs were drying up and thousands of people were leaving the state to find work. He retired from General Motors and returned to his mountain 20 years ago.
He said his marriage ended over his doggedness and the blasting and the threats to his life.
"I asked my wife to marry me on this mountain," he said. "My wife left, but I could not leave this land. You pay a terrible price in this fight, but paying their price is worse."
Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.