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This news story originally provided by The Washington Post
January 6, 2005
Mining Town Rises in Anger
After Boy Is Killed by Boulder, Va. Residents Cite Disregard for Safety
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer


It hurled like a cannonball into Dennis and Cindy Davidson's house, right through the wall of the bedroom and onto the bed where 3-year-old Jeremy was sleeping.

The huge boulder continued its path, crashing through a closet before finally stopping at the foot of 8-year-old Zachary's bed. Zachary would be fine. Jeremy was crushed to death.

A bulldozer operator widening a road at a strip mining operation atop Black Mountain had unknowingly dislodged the half-ton boulder that August night. And now, more than four months later, Jeremy's death is still being felt across the coal mines of southwestern Virginia.

For many residents, the toddler's death has come to symbolize what they consider the companies' and the state's callous disregard for their safety.

"Since the child got killed, it's sort of like when the towers got bombed and the country came together," said Carl "Pete" Ramey, a coal miner turned anti-strip-mining activist. "The death of an innocent child that had nothing to do with what's going on has brought us together. I think a lot of people feel guilty they didn't do something before."

In this corner of the state, more than 400 miles southwest of Washington, officials have scrambled to respond to the anger and grief that has led residents on protest marches through town. A special prosecutor is investigating whether to bring criminal charges. The state mining agency has fined the mining company $15,000 -- the legal maximum -- and proposed changes in the law. In a report, the state agency quoted philosopher George Santayana's dictum about those who ignore history being doomed to repeat it and vowed, "This tragic accident will not be forgotten."

The Davidsons, who have filed a $26.5 million lawsuit against the mining operators, are hoping that Jeremy will be remembered as a catalyst for change.

"I keep asking Cindy, 'Why couldn't we have had his bed sitting against another wall?' " Dennis Davidson said in an interview as his wife sat beside him, wiping away tears. "We had no idea when we put him to bed that a stinking 1,000-pound boulder could come crashing through the house.

"I don't want my son's death to be in vain. I want to see changes in the laws so that something this stupid and careless doesn't happen again."

Even in a region riddled with monuments to mining disasters and fatalities, such a tragedy had never happened before.

The town of Appalachia has thrived with coal, then withered as its heyday has passed. More than one in four of the town's 1,800 residents live below the poverty line.

The hollows outside town, like the one where the Davidsons lived, were bucolic and peaceful places until recently. About five years ago, surface mining started moving from distant mountaintops to the hills directly above Appalachia, reflecting a dramatic upswing in the fortunes of coal.

Coal produces more than half the electricity generated in the United States, and expanding economies in this country and China have created a huge demand for electricity. With natural gas prices soaring, coal is more competitive.

More coal-fired power plants have been announced in the last 12 months than in the previous 12 years, according to the National Mining Association. There is even a labor shortage.

But in the valleys of southwestern Virginia, resistance to surface mining has been building as residents say their lives have grown unbearable.

Ramey last year moved away from his house of 37 years, believing that the blasting required in surface mining was sending rocks flying into his yard. Dorothy Taulbee quit sitting on her porch and hanging clothes out to dry because of dust from coal hauling trucks that speed by her house. Since Jeremy Davidson's death, Mary Crow Pace considers it too dangerous for her great-grandson to visit.

"It's been horrible," said Pace, who lives nearby. "The blasting caused so much shaking and rocking when I was standing in the bathroom the other day. If I hadn't been holding on to the basin, I believe I would have fallen over. I've been here 77 years, and I haven't seen anything like this. It ain't no fun living here anymore. It's a scary place."

Last spring, a rock the size of a basketball tumbled down the mountain and hit the house of Carlene Stout, the Davidsons' next-door neighbor. "I'd like to see them buy all of us out if they're going to do their mining stuff, or quit tearing everything up," Stout said as she stood near the yellow police tape that still surrounds the Davidsons' property.

Many residents said they were not surprised that someone was killed, though they never imagined it would be a sleeping child.

Over the last three years, Wesley Lawson and his grandmother have filed dozens of complaints with the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy about surface mining near their home in the Wise County town of Coeburn. In one complaint made in March 2003, a state inspector reported that Lawson said "something had to be done or someone was going to get killed."

Using seismographs and blasting logs, the agency's investigators, however, have found little evidence that the blasting has caused most of the damage or posed the level of danger that most residents believe it has. The companies almost always operated well within the legal blasting limits.

Asked why surface mining is permitted near residential neighborhoods, agency spokesman Mike Abbott replied, "Because state and federal laws allow it." He cited laws prohibiting surface mining within 300 feet of an occupied dwelling and within 100 feet of a public road.

In the five years they lived beside Black Mountain, the Davidsons had never complained of problems.

The only danger they warned their sons about was the speeding trucks.

On Aug. 19, Dennis Davidson, 38, came home from his job as an inventory clerk and played ball with his sons. Cindy Davidson, 32, who works at a day-care center, prepared supper. Jeremy fell asleep on his mother's lap, and she tucked him into bed.

According to a report by the state mining agency, A&G Coal Corp. employees on the evening shift were widening a road to handle 18-wheel coal hauling trucks at a mine called Strip Number 13.

About 2:30 a.m., a bulldozer operator pushed topsoil toward the outside berm. Seated behind a large blade with only the bulldozer lights to guide him, he did not realize rocks had been pushed over the mountainside, covering a half-acre.

The state report says one boulder about the size of a large microwave oven traveled 649 feet down the wooded mountainside before crashing through Jeremy's bedroom wall.

The A&G work crew did not learn about it until an hour later, when a mechanic driving home at the end of his shift passed the Davidsons' house and saw the ambulance. After asking what had happened, he returned to the mountaintop to alert his co-workers.

The agency contends that Jeremy Davidson died not because the laws were lax but because existing laws and rules were broken. It has accused A&G of "gross negligence." Elsey Harris, an attorney for A&G, declined to comment, citing the lawsuit and potential criminal charges.

The Davidsons have largely stayed out of the public debate that has ensued. When asked in an interview whom they blame for their son's death, they turned to their attorney, Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott).

"Anytime you have steep inclines like this, you shouldn't be pushing boulders toward people's residences," he said.

"It's an accident waiting to happen."

That conclusion is supported in two reports the state mining agency has issued. It said the mining company's permit did not authorize the road widening.

It accused the company of negligence for doing the work at night above occupied dwellings and using an inexperienced bulldozer operator working without adequate lighting.

It issued three violations and fined A&G the legal maximum of $5,000 for each violation. The company is appealing the citations.

Since the accident, the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has stepped up its review of mining operations in the area.

Inspectors have flown over the mountains in a helicopter looking for violations and visited every local mine, seeking potential problems.

Many residents are angry at the agency, believing it has failed to protect them. Some never complained, saying they knew that nothing would come of it. Local legislators appointed by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to a panel overseeing the investigation said they were struck by the level of frustration.

"Not only are they down on the coal companies, they're down on DMME," said Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell), who attended a four-hour meeting with residents last month. "The last thing they said to us was, 'Thank you for coming and hearing us, but we don't think you're going to do anything.' There's an issue of credibility."

Abbott, the agency spokesman, said there is little more that investigators can do unless laws are strengthened. The agency has proposed several changes, including a requirement that the companies notify nearby residents of their plans at least three hours before work begins.

The agency also has suggested increasing the maximum penalty for violations resulting in injury from the current $5,000 to $70,000.

The Davidsons say they would be pleased if new requirements arising from their tragedy were passed. They would like them to be known as "Jeremy's law."

"It would be an honor to his memory," said Cindy Davidson.

As Christmas approached, Jeremy's loss was keenly felt by his parents and brother. They did not put up a tree in their rented apartment, because the boulder tore through the closet where the ornaments were stored.

The accident has been particularly hard on Zachary, they said. Most weekends, they take him to visit his brother's grave. He usually picks up the ceramic bunny rabbits the Davidsons have placed among the artificial flowers.

After one of their last visits, he told them, "When we move, I don't want to live by a hill. I may be next."

2005 The Washington Post Company


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