By Peter Slavin
For Years a Giant Company Has Been Mining in West Virginia's Big Coal River Valley, Heedless of the People Living There. Now the Process Is Destroying the Mountains Themselves, and Residents Are Fighting Back
Peter Slavin is a writer based in Oakton, Va. He has been following events along the Big Coal River for seven years
May 5 2002
Judy Bonds, her daughter and grandson were the last ones out. They packed up and left Marfork hollow early last year, the rear guard of more than 50 families in a community that had existed for nearly a century--until the A.T. Massey Coal Co. arrived on this stretch of the Big Coal River in southern West Virginia. The company mined in Marfork around the clock as if no one lived there, blasting their way into coal seams, noisily loading more than 100 railroad cars at a time, blanketing the town with black coal dust and discharging blackwater coal residue into the stream that fed the water supply. "Living in a hellhole," neighbors used to say to Bonds.
Above them, like the Sword of Damocles, stood a dam taller than the Grand Coulee, holding billions of gallons of coal waste. Its collapse would have sent a wall of blackwater to drown them.
For years, residents gathered daily near Marfork's entrance to protest conditions. Massey security guards filmed them. "They'd drive up and down the hardtop road with their video cameras," recalls Roger Daniel, who eventually moved to North Carolina. Massey also installed a number of small, powerful cameras, which Daniel and others say were sometimes trained on people's homes. The company installed outside lighting so bright that there was no need to turn on lights inside houses. At the time, they say, Massey was running TV ads calling itself a good neighbor. Bonds stayed as long as she could, partly on principle--she hated the company--and partly out of attachment to Marfork. She found pleasure in the blue jays and doves that flew in each day to their feeders, the same woodpecker that returned every spring and the sounds of the Little League park in the summer. A coal miner's daughter, she had lived in the hollow virtually all of her life. Etched in her memory of childhood are a grove of paw paw trees, her mother's hog pen, her grandpa's mule and the smell of the earth in the freshly turned garden.
She finally gave up when her grandson developed asthma, which the doctor blamed on coal dust. The family moved 12 miles to a nice house near Rock Creek hollow, perhaps the most beautiful place in the Coal River Valley. But they could not escape Massey. The company was right behind them, doing preliminary drilling in that hollow. The company, now known as Massey Energy Co., has already blasted the top off Montcoal Mountain. Now it plans to march down the valley with this form of strip mining, one so marvelously efficient that over the last two to three decades, Massey and other coal companies have begun relying on it throughout Appalachia.
Called mountaintop removal, it's a technique that devastates everything in its path, decapitating mountains and filling the valleys and streams with the rubble. The watchdog group American Rivers has twice named Coal River (officially known as Big Coal River) one of the nation's most endangered because of the massive amounts of debris dumped into its tributaries.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship rarely grants interviews, and would not for this story. The company also declined to provide details about its mines, which have yielded hundreds of millions of tons of high-grade coal but left the valley with almost nothing to show for it--not even many jobs. Massey, a notoriously anti-union firm, and its contractors prefer to bring in miners from elsewhere--Virginia, Kentucky and other parts of West Virginia--rather than hire local workers, apparently fearing the valley's strong union tradition. This used to be United Mine Workers of America country.
A generation of unemployed young men has left the valley for work elsewhere, accelerating the region's economic descent since the 1970s. Merchants continually go under, leaving gas stations-cum-convenience stores seemingly the only establishments that can make it.
Schools have closed one by one as enrollment dropped, and citizens had to get a court injunction to keep one of the two remaining high schools open.
Many locals believe Massey's strategy is to let things get so bad on the river that virtually everyone will pull up and leave, permitting mountaintop removal to proceed unchecked.
How West Virginia can tolerate such economic and environmental ruin might be puzzling to a Californian, whose state has the luxury of immense wealth and economic diversity--not to mention strong environmental sensibilities. But West Virginia is poor--always has been poor--and vertical. Mountains stretch from border to border, ruling out most industries other than mining, logging and, lately, tourism.
Ever since 19th century land companies obtained mineral rights for a song from people living in the mountains, coal companies headquartered in Eastern cities have leased the mineral rights and dug the coal. For decades, miners not only risked life and limb toiling underground but also depended on the company for everything from food to medical care and churches. Company towns and the legendary company stores held them in thrall.
In the capital, Charleston, officials eager to see the state's resources tapped supported these colonial-like arrangements. Coal operators were notoriously anti-union and fought the UMW's attempts to organize. The years before and after World War I saw an epic sequence of events: a gunfight at Matewan that took the lives of seven coal company goons, two miners and the mayor; the assassination of Matewan's police chief, a friend to the miners; and a UMW-led insurrection against the coal companies and the state by 15,000 armed miners. These events were part of West Virginia's "mine wars," and some of those fighting Massey see their struggle as its sequel.
While coal and its affiliated enterprises still form the heart of West Virginia's economy, the old labor-intensive underground mining, which for decades employed more than 100,000 miners statewide, has given way to highly mechanized methods, including mountaintop removal. The modernization is essential, the industry says, if coal is to compete with foreign producers. Mountaintop removal can recover 100% of the coal, compared to 60% at best from conventional underground mines. West Virginia yielded more coal in the 1990s than in any previous decade while the number of mining jobs plummeted to 15,000.
Massey began operating in the Coal River Valley in 1981. There was trouble from the start. The company wanted to mine "union free." The opening of the Elk Run mine--the first of four massive complexes that Massey operates in the valley--touched off violence between the union and the company. Massey security agents had bunkers in the woods and big dogs, but UMW members struck first, seriously injuring a security guard and burning property. Scores of union members were arrested during a months-long organizing battle. Afterward, a judge imposed long-term restraining orders on the union and a number of members, curbing organizing efforts for years.
As time passed, Massey steadily replaced UMW miners with nonunion workers. Others lost their jobs when low coal prices caused mines on the river to close. In 1984, Massey withdrew from the Bituminous Coal Operators Assn., which represents employers in industry-wide contract negotiations, so it could bargain with the UMW mine by mine. The union responded with a long, bitter strike, but the company prevailed. Massey began shifting operations to nonunion subsidiary companies and eventually made nearly all of the valley nonunion. The company also treated miners well, with good wages, bonuses and perks such as family trips and picnics, giving workers little reason to organize. Besides, the company had carefully screened out those miners who had sympathy for the union.
Things started changing in the mid-1990s. With no union to worry about, Massey cut wages and medical insurance. It adopted a two-tier wage structure, paying less to new hires and using more contractors who paid low wages and brought in workers from elsewhere. Relying on contractors let the corporation avoid the union and sidestep employer liabilities such as unemployment and worker's compensation. The UMW has tried three times since 1995 to unionize the work force but has failed narrowly on each occasion.
The election of George W. Bush proved a boon to the coal industry, as did the rolling blackouts in California. Crucial to the razor-thin margin of his victory was his upset in West Virginia, one credited to the efforts of James H. "Buck" Harless, a West Virginia timber and coal magnate; William Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Assn.; and UMW official Dick Kimbler, an advocate of mountaintop removal. Harless was rewarded with a place on Bush's transition task force on energy. Last May he joined Massey's board of directors.
Bush's energy plan has championed coal as the best solution to the nation's energy problems. "Bush has breathed air into the dead lungs of the coal industry," says John McCormick, coordinator of the Citizens Coal Council in Washington, D.C., which fights coal company abuses.
The Bush administration is now moving to preempt a legal threat to mountaintop removal. The administration fears that a federal judge may prohibit the dumping of mining rubble into streams and valleys in a pending Kentucky lawsuit. The same judge created an uproar in 1999 when he banned "valley fills" on a West Virginia mining project before being overruled on a technicality that left the issue open. The challengers in both cases argued that Army Corps of Engineers regulations prohibit such dumping. The administration intends to simply rewrite those regulations.
In West Virginia, coal continues its cozy relationship with elected officials. Coal was the top donor in the last two elections to the speaker of the House, the Senate president and former Gov. Cecil Underwood, says Norm Steenstra, who directs a citizen lobbying group. Indeed, there is a revolving door between the industry and government. Underwood had been a coal company executive, and three of the last four heads of West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection--mining's chief overseer--have come from the coal industry. The agency long had a reputation for carrying the industry's water and ignoring citizen complaints.
South of Charleston, state route 3 follows the coal river and a tributary. Coming to this part of Boone and Raleigh counties is to step back in time half a century. Virtually nothing visible is shiny or modern or illuminated at night, save the coal facilities. Place names suggest the valley's rugged history: Pettry Bottom, Dry Creek, Horse Creek, Peachtree, Clay's Branch.
Along Route 3, cars are hemmed in between the steep hillsides and the river, sharing the two-lane shoulderless highway with huge coal and logging trucks. The coal trucks run every day around the clock, often hauling more than twice the legal weight--as Massey and other coal operators recently admitted to the state Legislature. They beat up the roads, crack house foundations, cross the center line on curves and sometimes lose their brakes on steep hills. Until a recent police crackdown, a coal truck rumbled through the town of Whitesville every two minutes.
Trucks caused so many potholes and so much dust on one stretch of road that homeowners sued Massey and forced the company to rebuild. But they say Massey has let the road deteriorate again. In September, a brother and sister died near Charleston when an overloaded coal truck rear-ended their car, spinning it into the path of an oncoming coal truck. Since then, three other people have died and four have been seriously injured in collisions with coal trucks.
Three towering sludge dams are a frightening reminder to valley residents of two previous dam disasters in the region: the 125 lives lost at Buffalo Creek, W.Va., in 1972 and the 250-million-gallon spill in Inez, Ky., in 2000 that fouled streams, rivers and drinking water and ruined aquatic life for miles. Should the Marfork dam break, for example, the wave of sludge would stand roughly 25 feet tall when it reached Whitesville, five miles away. The only plan in the event of collapse is, literally, to head for the hills.
Those risks aside, it is the settlements along Route 3 that tell the story of modern coal. Most towns are badly run-down, and here and there pockets of Appalachian-style poverty exist. There are many attractive homes too, solid brick ramblers, but they usually belong to retired miners, most with union pensions.
Sylvester, which once was the place to live in the valley, seems to be reliving Marfork's experience. The giant Elk Run mining site lies just a few hundred yards away. Heavy dust from a coal preparation plant blankets Sylvester homes inside and out. Trains make a racket, idling close by for hours at a time. There is talk that Massey wants to build a conveyor belt across one end of town, and the company has bought the homes of most people there.
Continuing south, Route 3 runs through Whitesville, the largest settlement in the valley. It's only a shell of what it was 25 years ago. People talk about the old days--the two movie theaters, department store, two dozen restaurants, taverns, bowling alley and several doctors. Sidewalks were crowded and parking was hard to find. Now many buildings are shuttered and parts of town seem decrepit enough to blow away in the wind.
Montcoal, another huge Massey installation, is draped across a mountainside south of Whitesville. A red and green conveyor belt runs above Route 3 like an amusement park ride, then vanishes over the mountain, carrying raw coal from Montcoal to Marfork for processing. A small junior high and high school is near the mine.
Sundial, farther south still, has another prep plant where coal is washed, crushed, sized and blended--a computer-driven affair. A silo holding the raw coal is 110 feet tall. This Massey facility is home to the only remaining unionized work force on the river. "Production, production, production" is the mantra, says miner Richard Scarbro. One week last summer, he says, Sundial's 22 workers loaded six trains with coal. Five pulled at least 75 cars.
Close by is an elementary school. On the mountainside above, but hard to see, is a sludge dam 400 feet high. It holds a lake full of coal waste, chemicals and toxic heavy metals, including mercury and arsenic. Remarkably, given what the dam's failure would mean for people below, it was placed there long after the school was built. Most parents did not realize it was there until they were shown aerial photos last year.
Nothing remains of the Sundial Tavern, once a landmark and the only place to get a drink for miles. Massey bought the tavern last spring and demolished it in August. It had been owned by a harsh critic of the company, the first community organizer on the river. His wife found the tension too much, Massey offered a good price, and the couple bought property in Ohio.
Massey has kept residents at arm's length, unlike previous coal companies in the valley. Many people speak warmly of Armco Steel in particular. Duane Rorrer, a former miner, says Armco helped out in the little towns, "and everyone from the superintendent on down lived right in the community." Jim Wills, a radiologist turned engineer, recalls that when floods struck Coal River, Armco paid its heavy-equipment operators to clear out creeks and rivers in their own communities.
By contrast, no important Massey official lives in the valley. The company, the nation's fifth-largest coal producer, is based in Richmond, Va. Its VIPs fly in by helicopter. So it may be no surprise that Massey pulled 18.5 million tons of prized low-sulfur coal, worth more than $500 million, from this 20-mile stretch of the valley in 2000--but did little to help the towns in its wake.
Massey also has closed off the mountains, breaking an Appalachian tradition that regards the mountainsides as "commons." People historically have been allowed free rein there, regardless of who had legal title. They would go into the mountains to hunt and gather nuts, berries and other wild fruit--as well as ramp onions, ginseng and medicinal herbs they might use or sell. Other coal operators honored this tradition. Massey has erected gates and posted armed guards.
"Massey Coal does not consider us human beings," says James A. Scarbro, 70, a retired miner and former UMW official. "We're dogs. We're in their way. I've lain in bed at night thinking about things I could do to Massey."
Jewel Rorrer, Duane's wife, says it was she who exposed mountaintop removal on Montcoal Mountain. She showed residents photos and video footage, and Massey has not forgotten. Rorrer and her husband's family cemeteries are on the mountain, and they have a deed granting them access. But Rorrer says that when she has gone on company property alone, the guards have issued veiled threats. "That's why I never go up there without a gun," she says. Once they let her go up to a cemetery without warning her that workers were blasting nearby. An explosion knocked her down.
About four years ago, something happened to change the equation along Coal River. After years of being silent because they had relatives who worked for Massey or did business with the company and feared repercussions, the residents began to speak out and organize. Meetings began drawing crowds. Though they were small at first, upward of 100 people came to two gatherings last year in Sylvester and about 75 attended one on Clear Fork.
In part, this is the fruit of efforts by Coal River Mountain Watch, a handful of people who are willing to take on the coal companies and state officials. The group challenges requests for blasting and dam permits, testifies at public hearings and travels to the state capital and Washington, D.C., for rallies. Judy Bonds, who is part Cherokee, has been its driving force, though nothing in her past seemed to prepare her for the role. After raising a daughter, Bonds worked as a waitress and manager at Pizza Hut, then worked in convenience stores. But the Marfork experience radicalized her.
Now this friendly but tough 49-year-old woman carries an astonishing number of details about mining in her head, serves as the group's community outreach coordinator and is an inspiration to others. "It gives people, especially women, courage when they see regular people like Judy Bonds speaking out," says Janet Fout of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, an ally of Mountain Watch.
Bonds is technically a part-time employee but says she puts in 75 hours a week. She receives $12,000 annually and is the only salaried person at Mountain Watch, which operates out of a $200-a-month storefront and makes do on a budget of $43,800 from three foundations and a nonprofit group. "We're overwhelmed with issues," Bonds says. The small group also tracks the work of two other giant firms, Arch Coal and AEI Resources, which have subsidiaries nearby.
For two years, Bonds had help from Donna Halstead, who lives over the mountains. Until she was forced to stop to care for her ailing in-laws, Halstead had driven 53 miles on narrow roads from her home to Mountain Watch's office in Whitesville to volunteer at least three days a week. Aversion to mountaintop removal spurred her. Expansion of an Arch Coal operation threatens her family cemetery and "home place." Halstead is now leading a group fighting overweight coal trucks and is running for the state Legislature as a candidate of the new Mountain Party.
Mountain Watch works closely with the like-minded Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and two other citizens' groups. National environmental organizations have joined in some protests against mountaintop removal, particularly Friends of the Earth, the Izaak Walton League and Citizens Coal Council. But they have not been able to make the cause a national issue.
Help came last year from a surprising quarter. The UMW had been laying low on community issues in the coal fields for years, supporting mountaintop removal presumably for the sake of miners' jobs and industry contributions to its pension fund. Suddenly last year, it launched an anti-Massey campaign, condemning the company for many practices and holding a rally and sit-in at Elk Run as well as community meetings. It began working with Mountain Watch and the Sylvester activists. Last month, the UMW bused 250 people to Richmond to protest outside a Massey stockholders meeting. CEO Don Blankenship complained that West Virginia is cracking down on Massey because of UMW pressure.
The UMW started its anti-Massey campaign after residents unhappy with Massey operations asked for the union's help, says Donnie Samms, the UMW official directing the campaign. The underlying reason for the UMW campaign may be to build public support for another bid to unionize Massey operations. Still, the union is probably the strongest ally the citizens can hope for.
The state has gotten tougher with the industry under the administration of Gov. Bob Wise, who took office last year. The state recently took the extraordinary step of ordering Marfork shut down for nine days for continued water pollution, a step for which Mountain Watch can take some credit. While living near Marfork, Bonds regularly reported blackwater spills to authorities. Massey is appealing the order. The state also imposed an unprecedented 30-day suspension on a Massey mine elsewhere in the state.
Mountain Watch also can claim other small achievements--tighter monitoring of permits, a better job by state inspectors, a growing number of citizens willing to call in complaints to the state, and more honest talk from environmental officials "because we've educated ourselves on the law and regulations," Bonds says. State officials, she adds, "are scrutinized a lot closer now, and they know it." In addition, politicians and the news media, which had long ignored the valley's problems, have started to pay attention.
Homeowners in Sylvester won a state ruling against Massey on the dust issue, but they say the company did little about the problem for years. Now, under state pressure, it is building a 105-foot-high dome to cover the coal stockpile. Massey also was ordered to pay Sylvester $100,000, but so far the town defiantly has refused the money. "We're not for sale," Pauline Canterberry, leader of the local rebellion, has insisted. Also pending are lawsuits against Massey by about 100 Sylvester property owners.
Massey was carving up Montcoal Mountain for two or three years before residents knew it. Mountain Watch now learns in advance of plans for mountaintop removal by tracking applications for mining permits. They know that two new large permits have been approved by the state and two others are being sought. Together, the four permits target the mountains for miles along the river.
"It would absolutely devastate Coal River," Donna Halstead says. Four communities--Edwight, Sundial, Artie and Drews Creek--are in the path of the mining, she says, and others are nearby. Sundial and Edwight are within the authorized blast zone. She says Massey made most homeowners no offer for their property, giving them the choice of leaving without a penny or enduring the mining. "They buy out the most influential people or the most outspoken people and then leave the rest of them to just get blasted to bits," she says. Their communities are likely to go the way of Blair in Logan County. That once-thriving community of 400 homes became a virtual ghost town as residents were driven out by the roar, flying rock and choking dust of blasting. Just 25 homes remain occupied.
The largest two permits being sought--totaling four square miles--are Massey's. One has been approved; Mountain Watch appealed, citing the danger of blasting so close to the schools and rock cliffs that line Route 3. Bonds says car-sized boulders have come down in slides. One closed Route 3 and three schools and led more than 600 people to sign a petition asking the state to tear down the cliffs.
At the September hearing on the appeal, a remarkable thing happened. The state mine board, while upholding the permit, granted citizens several major concessions. It designated a 12-mile stretch of the rock cliffs a "structure," giving them some protection from blasting. It ordered an engineering firm to investigate the cliffs' stability and recommend the maximum strength for air blasts and ground vibrations. It told Massey to protect the cemeteries on Montcoal Mountain against blasting and to ensure visitors' privacy. The board's action was unprecedented.
Bonds says a board member called it the best case ever presented by citizens. Mountain Watch could not afford an attorney for the hearing but hired one to coach residents on how to testify. Massey was represented by one of the state's premier law firms, Jackson & Kelly.
Massey has begun mining near the junior high-high school complex, but Mountain Watch carries on. "We've put a chair against the door to keep the wolves out," Bonds says. Still, she believes publicity and pressure provide the only hope of stopping Massey. She calls what is happening on Coal River "a dirty little secret. We'd like to get the word out." The problem, she says, is Americans "don't seem to care about people from Appalachia." If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at www.latimes.com/archives. For information about reprinting this article, go to www.lats.com/rights.