BIG COAL River Valley, W. Va. -- Standing in the kitchen of his family's home in their beautiful and tranquil hollow, Jim Wills told me of a nightmare he had as a child, one that still baffles him.
Forty years later, it seems a mysterious omen of what was to come. In his sleep, young Jim saw a towering piece of earth-moving equipment astride the mountaintop near his home like some giant science-fiction robot menacing the valley below.
Wills' dream has come to pass, though so far his hollow has been spared. To get at the coal, the mountains of southern West Virginia are being blown up and dumped into the surrounding valleys, burying the creeks. Called mountaintop removal, an apt name, it's the latest, most rapid, ruthless, and efficient form of strip mining and accounts for an ever-growing share of West Virginia coal production.
The federal Clean Air Act put a premium on low-sulfur coal because it burns relatively cleanly, and these mountains are full of it. Mountaintop removal operations are "like a gold mine," one miner told me.
From a small plane I have seen a dozen or so flattened mountaintops within a 25-mile radius of the town of Beckley (most mountaintop mining operations are closed to the media.) Less ambitious mountaintop mining is also under- way in a few other states.
Mountaintop mining is done on a stupendous scale. First, the mountain is logged for good timber and the rest of the forest leveled. Then, blasting loosens the rocks, and a machine similar to a crane with a base the size of a nine-story hotel is turned loose to scoop up the rubble. Known as a dragline, this is Jim Wills' nightmare come to life. Every minute its bucket can pick up the equivalent of five tractor-trailer loads of dirt and rock and drop it a football field away. Costing as much as $50 million and assembled atop a mountain -- a process that takes 12 to 18 months with parts delivered in 300 truckloads -- a dragline almost never quits, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"They cost so much, you've got to use them around the clock," says an industry official.
A mountain does not stand a chance. One after another, the seams of coal, each running through the mountain like a black ribbon, are fully exposed to daylight and scooped out.
Standing on a dirt road high in the hills across from Montcoal Mountain, where a hydraulic shovel -- smaller than a dragline, but still huge and voracious -- has been on the offensive, I saw what is left of that mountain. Sections had disappeared, lowering the terrain hundreds of feet, and the removal site -- a bruised, barren semicircular landscape stretching perhaps four miles -- had been sliced into huge terraced chunks. The black seams had been left naked, and great piles of coal were awaiting transfer to an underground conveyor belt four miles long.
Montcoal Mountain -- where the people on Big Coal River used to hunt squirrel and bear, pick berries, harvest ramp onions and ginseng, and go fourwheeling -- is being taken down. "Almost Heaven, West Virginia," John Denver's hymn to the state, has prompted a sardonic new bumper sticker: "Almost Level, West Virginia."
The coal companies "reclaim" the land, usually planting a non-native grass and locust and pine trees, which local people consider a miserable substitute for what had been there: the towering hardwood trees of the Appalachian forest. The industry labels such areas "wildlife habitats," a post-mining land use not permitted by law, which calls for either restoring the land to its natural state or real development.
The companies point to developments such as shopping malls, golf courses, prisons, factories and schools that have risen on some flattened terrain. But, environmentalists say, considering the vast tracts of land affected, these uses are few and far between. And in the remote and sparsely settled backcountry, most such projects make no sense. Besides, people here are deeply attached to these mountains. Some families have lived in and roamed them since the 1700s, for seven generations or more.
The great battle
Blair Mountain in Logan County has sparked the great battle over mountaintop removal. The battle is being waged in federal court, where a handful of families and environmentalists sued on environmental grounds to block Arch Coal's bid to expand its mammoth operation. The company, which had already cut a six-mile swath across the mountaintop, had asked the state for a permit to let it mine another five square miles -- yes, five square miles -- in an area centering on Pigeon Roost Hollow.
The plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction after the judge flew over the mountain to see things for himself. The injunction could delay a permit for the new mine for at least two years and is forcing Arch Coal and its contractors to lay off about 350 employees, most of the workers at Blair.
The suit has led to a tentative out-of-court settlement that could make mountaintop removal mining less damaging. Details of the agreement are sketchy. The lawsuit might also prompt the judge to ban any dumping of debris from mountaintop mining that occurs within 100 feet of a stream. If he does, mountaintop mining could be drastically curtailed throughout Appalachia.
The lawsuit was initiated by James Weekley, a lifelong resident of the hollow and a disabled coal miner.
"I'm the only mine left in Pigeon Roost right now and I'm sitting right in the middle of the five square miles they want," Weekley told me.
Mountaintop mining, says Weekley, damages trees, streams, "all living things that God has created on this Earth." Arch Coal, he says, "knew they was breaking the Clean Water Act. Why didn't our politicians make them stick by the law?"
Weekley probably knows why. West Virginia officials have a long tradition of corruption and dancing to the tune of the coal industry.
Weekley is a gaunt man of 58 whose speech has an Elizabethan lilt, testament to his people's centuries of isolation in the mountains. To him, the hollow is irreplaceable. His mother's family settled there in 1743, and at one time the family owned land "just as far as the eye could see." His father taught school by day and worked in the coal mines at night. Weekley and his wife, Sibby, raised six children in the hollow and their 14 grandchildren come to visit.
Of the hollow, he says, "I've hunted with my uncles, my grandpa, [and] my boys, and I fish in that creek with my grandchildren. That stream has never went dry."
The hollow, he adds, holds "all my memories."
An offer was made to buy out Weekley, but Weekley, who receives neither a pension nor Social Security and survives on a small workers' compensation check, turned it down.
It is too late for most people who lived in the town of Blair, however. The roar of blasting, flying rocks, and choking dust made life unbearable for many residents; the blasting went on "almost continuously" says Janice Nease, who sat on a state-appointed committee on the issue. "When they blast, a dust cloud hovers in the air for 10 minutes. You can't even see. Cars have to turn their lights on."
As a result, Arch Coal has bought out hundreds of families. Of the 400 homes in Blair, says Weekley, only 55 or 60 remain. The company appears to have made a calculated effort to pressure people to leave. Arch Coal officials admitted in another lawsuit that they bought out Blair homeowners only if they first agreed in writing never to protest a strip mine or to return. Blair almost has become a ghost town.
The demolition of Blair Mountain through coal mining is a sacrilege. A few years ago I learned something not in schoolbooks: In 1921, about 10,000 miners, determined to free their brothers in the southernmost part of West Virginia from coal company oppression by establishing a union there, marched through the state and fought a pitched battle on Blair Mountain against 3,000 armed "militia men" representing the coal companies.
Federal troops and planes were called in to put down the insurrection, one of the largest in U.S. history. No plaque commemorates the Battle of Blair Mountain; apparently both U.S. and West Virginia authorities found it too embarrassing to acknowledge what happened there and its role in the U.S. labor movement. Weekley has formed a nonprofit association to establish a national historical park on Blair and says he's going to re-enact the battle next September.
Now people in the coal fields are divided again, this time over mountaintop removal. "It's almost like the Civil War," says one woman. "You have brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor." One side lifts the banner of preserving some of the precious few good jobs in the coal fields, the other the flags of enforcing environmental laws and saving the mountains and communities. An Internet site in Logan County, where Blair Mountain is located, has drawn hundreds of messages, many vitriolic, from residents on both sides of the issue. Opponents of mountaintop mining are labeled environmental extremists who are trying to abolish coal mining and are willing to deprive miners of their jobs.
'This is War'
Union miners have been a loud presence at rallies and hearings. People who have spoken out against mountaintop removal have been threatened and have received intimidating telephone calls. Some of those who brought the lawsuit over Blair have received death threats, and shots were fired at the home of one plaintiff, Vicki Moore. She says public officials turn a deaf ear to opponents of mountaintop mining in face-to-face meetings, and police have offered them only perfunctory protection at heated public forums.
"This is War" proclaimed the local newspaper, the Logan Banner, on the front page after the head of the county commission applied that term to the struggle over mountaintop removal. Counties in southern West Virginia depend heavily on coal for tax revenues, and the commission was alarmed about the loss of millions of tax dollars if mining at Blair were halted. A week later, an association of Appalachian churches issued an appeal against harassment, intimidation or violence in the coal fields.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts has disappointed and angered many West Virginians by supporting mountaintop mining. Roberts has warned of the loss of union jobs if the practice is curbed, but opponents, who want more underground mining instead, argue mountaintop mining employs few miners. They say there would be far more and longer-lasting jobs for the union in deep mines. But the days of underground operations employing hundreds of workers are gone. New longwall machines have made deep mining so efficient that only a handful of miners are required. Roberts' critics accuse him of betraying his members' long-term interests, but he may see no alternative to mountaintop operations.
On Kayford Mountain, another battle against destruction has been fought for a decade. While the adjoining mountains are being torn apart, Larry Gibson, 53, a retired autoworker whose forebears homesteaded the top of Kayford Mountain in the 1830s, has fought to save the mountain on which he grew up. The Kayford community disbanded years ago, but Gibson and others established a foundation to represent 600 former residents.
As foundation president, Gibson was instrumental in turning the 50 acres the group owns on top of the mountain into a public park to prevent the coal companies from acquiring land there. Before that, he says, he was offered $140,000 for the property. Selling, he adds, "would be like putting a price on my history. How do you do that? How do you replace it?"
Gibson, a little man with heart, has made a public pilgrimage. To throw a spotlight on mountaintop removal, he made a six-week, 490-mile trek across the state, most of it on foot. Gibson made the journey in the midsummer heat despite having had open heart surgery three years ago and angioplasty two weeks before he started.
Having had his share of confrontations over mountaintop removal, he feared trouble from miners, but except for some heckling, he was greeted warmly. Even some coal truck drivers gave him the "thumbs up." People took him into their homes every night, and some walked beside him for a day or more. Along the way he talked to anyone he met about what's happening to the mountains and their people.
Weekly made his own five-day, 52-mile trek at the end of August, retracing the miners' march in 1921, accompanied at times by a dozen allies. He intended the journey as a tribute to the miners who fought at Blair Mountain, but he knew his prominence in the Blair lawsuit made him a marked man, and his fears proved prophetic.
Some defenders of continued mountaintop mining at Blair saw the marchers as enemies of the coal miner. On the first day of the march, a mob reportedly numbering 40 people attacked the walkers.
Shouting that the marchers were taking their jobs, laid-off miners and others blocked the road, threw eggs and tomatoes and spit on them. West Virginia's secretary of state was shoved and kicked and a bag of eggs hit a women dressed as the legendary Mother Jones, breaking her glasses. When police arrived, the mob agreed to let the marchers pass only on condition that one, a UMW member, turn her union shirt inside out.
Three days later, the mob returned and harassed the marchers again, shouting obscenities, throwing eggs and spitting -- despite the presence of police. The marchers say the violence was so organized it must have been planned; they suspect the coal companies were behind it.
Regardless of who instigated the trouble, the struggle over mountaintop removal has stirred bitter passions in the coal fields.
Peter Slavin is a free-lance journalist who has spent four years writing about the southern West Virginia coal fields.