Mining the Mountains

Explosives and giant machines are destroying Appalachian peaks to obtain coal. In a tiny West Virginia town, residents and the industry fight over a mountain’s fate

Mountain operations, like the Hobet 21 mine near Danville, West Virginia, yield one ton of coal for every 16 tons of terrain displaced. (Paul Corbit Brown)
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Scientists and community groups are concerned about the possible effects of coal-removal byproducts and waste. Ben Stout, the biologist, says he has found barium and arsenic in slurry from sites in southwestern West Virginia at concentrations that nearly qualify as hazardous waste. U.S. Forest Service biologist A. Dennis Lemly found deformed fish larvae in southern West Virginia's Mud River—some specimens with two eyes on one side of their head. He blames the deformities on high concentrations of selenium from the nearby Hobet 21 mountaintop project. "The Mud River ecosystem is on the brink of a major toxic event," he wrote in a report filed in a court case against the mining site, which remains active.

Scientists say they have little data on the effects of mountaintop coal mining on public health. Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, and a colleague, Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, analyzed mortality rates near mining-industry sites in West Virginia, including underground, mountaintop and processing facilities. After adjusting for other factors, including poverty and occupational illness, they found statistically significant elevations in deaths for chronic lung, heart and kidney disease as well as lung and digestive-system cancers. Overall cancer mortality was also elevated. Hendryx stresses that the information is preliminary. "It doesn't prove that pollution from the mining industry is a cause of the elevated mortality," he says, but it appears to be a factor.

Mountaintop removal has done what no environmental group could ever do: it has succeeded in turning many local people, including former miners, against West Virginia's oldest industry. Take 80-year-old Jim Foster, a former underground miner and mine-site welder and a lifelong resident of Boone County, West Virginia. As a boy before World War II, he used to hike and camp in Mo's Hollow, a small mountain valley now filled with rubble and waste from a mountaintop removal site. Another wilderness area he frequented, a stream valley called Roach Branch, was designated in 2007 as a fill site. Foster joined a group of local residents and the Huntington, West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in a federal lawsuit to block the Roach Branch Valley fill site on the grounds that the environmental impacts hadn't been adequately assessed. They won the first round when Judge Robert Chambers issued a temporary restraining order against the valley fills. The coal company is appealing the decision.

Foster says he puts up with a daily barrage of irritations from nearby mountaintop removal projects: blasting, 22-wheeled coal trucks on the road and ubiquitous dust. As we talked in his living room, trucks carrying coal explosives rumbled by. "Practically every day, our house is shook by the violent tremors caused by these blasts," he said, gesturing from his easy chair. "The one up there—you can see it from my window here—I've watched it as they tore that down. Before they started on it, it was beautiful twin peaks there, it was absolutely beautiful. And to look out and see the destruction going on day to day like it has, and see that mountain disappear, each day more of it being gone—to me that really, really hurts."

Around mining sites, tensions run high. In Twilight, a Boone County hamlet situated among three mountaintop sites, Mike Workman and his next-door neighbor, another retired miner named Richard Lee White, say they have battled constantly with one nearby operation. Last year, trucks exiting the site tracked onto the road a mud slick that persisted for weeks and precipitated several accidents, including one in which Workman's 27-year-old daughter, Sabrina Ellsworth, skidded and totaled her car; she was shaken up but not injured. State law requires that mining operations have working truck washes to remove mud; this one did not. After Workman complained repeatedly to state agencies, the state Department of Environmental Protection shut down the mine and fined its owner $13,482; the mine reopened two days later, with a working truck wash.

Workman also remembers when a coal slurry impoundment failed in 2001, sending water and sludge pouring through a hollow onto Route 26. "When it broke loose it come down, and my daughter lived at the mouth of it. The water was plumb up in her house past her windows, and I had to take a four-wheel-drive truck to get her and her kids. And my house down here, [the flood] destroyed it."

Ansted residents have had mixed success fighting a mining operation conducted by the Powellton Coal Company outside town. In 2008, they lost an appeal before West Virginia's Surface Mine Board, which rejected their argument that the blasting could flood homes by releasing water sealed in old mine shafts. But the year before, the town beat back an attempt to run big logging and coal trucks past a school and through town. "This is a residential area—this is not an industrial area," says Katheryne Hoffman, who lives at the edge of town. "We managed to get that temporarily stopped—but then they still got the [mining] permit, which means they will begin to bring the coal through somewhere, and it'll be the path of least resistance. Communities have to fight for their lives to get this stopped." A Powellton Coal Company official did not respond to requests for comment.

But many residents support the industry. "You have people who don't realize it is our livelihood here—it always has been, always will be," says Nancy Skaggs, who lives just outside Ansted. Her husband is a retired miner and her son does mine-site reclamation work. "Most of those against [mining] are people who have moved into this area. They don't appreciate what the coal industry does for this area. My husband's family has been here since before the Civil War, and always in the coal industry."

The dispute highlights the town's—and state's—predicament. West Virginia is the nation's third-poorest state, above only Mississippi and Arkansas in per capita income, and the poverty is concentrated in the coal fields: in Ansted's Fayette County, 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared with 16 percent in the state and 12 percent nationwide. For decades, mining has been the only industry in dozens of small West Virginia towns. But mountaintop coal removal, because of the toll it takes on the natural surroundings, is threatening the quality of life in communities that the coal industry helped build. And mountaintop removal, which employs half as many people to produce the same amount of coal as an underground mine, doesn't bring the same benefits that West Virginians once reaped from traditional coal mining.

The industry dismisses opponents' concerns as exaggerated. "What [environmentalists] are attempting to do is stir the emotions of people," says Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, "when the facts are that the disturbance is limited, and the type of mining is controlled by the geology."


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