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Dethroning King Coal | Learn More


Dethroning King Coal

A miner’s daughter stands up for Appalachia’s mountains

by Jennifer Hattam

Deep in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, the town of Whitesville clings to life along State Route 3. Its three-block downtown is marked by empty lots, boarded-up windows, and two funeral homes, and there’s scarcely aperson to be seen. The outskirts seem cheerier, with laughter bouncing out of the swimming pool and across the baseball field. But in a state wracked by turmoil since it was torn out of Virginia during the Civil War, even the bright spots are haunted by their past.

In the early 1900s, the coal industry sponsored baseball teams in company towns like Whitesville, which fostered competition between communities and distracted miners’ attention from poor working conditions. Efforts such as these eventually failed, and by midcentury union organizing had improved the local quality of life. The Big Coal River ran strong and deep, and the Big Rock, a swimming hole just about where the pool is now, was a favorite spot for a dip. But these days the river sometimes turns black with mining sludge, and the concrete pool cracks when the landfill beneath it shifts.

Coal built Whitesville, and other towns like it throughout Appalachia, but now coal is ripping the region apart. "My people have had to live with oppression for over 130 years," says Julia Bonds, 51, whose family includes three generations of coal miners. "But this new type of mining is more aggressive than ever. The coal industry is destroying our culture and our environment."

The new type of mining, aptly called "mountaintop removal," has claimed nearly a fifth of southwestern West Virginia’s peaks. Before the early 1960s, getting coal out of the ground meant sending men down into it. Then companies found that they could get at more coal, for less money, by simply tearing off the earth on top. Surface (or "strip") mining accelerated after the oil crises of the 1970s increased demand for domestic fuels, and again in the 1980s as earthmoving machines grew bigger and more powerful. With the latest removal techniques, hundreds of feet of dirt, plants, and rock above the coal seam are blasted off and dumped over the side of the mountain. This "overburden" smothers streams and pollutes the air, and the resulting erosion has led to some of the worst flooding in state history.

In May, a study by five government agencies calculated the toll mountaintop removal has taken in the Appalachian coalfields: 724 miles of streams buried and over 300,000 acres of forests obliterated. The deforestation is expected to double over the next decade. But instead of tougher regulations, the Bush administration proposed to "streamline" the review of new mining permits. It has also revised the Clean Water Act to legalize the already common practice of dumping mountain remnants into waterways as "fill." A local bumper sticker sums up events pretty well: "I have been to the mountaintop, but it wasn’t there."

Julia Bonds is fighting to end coal’s ruinous reign. A former Pizza Hut waitress and convenience-store clerk, for the past five years Bonds has been the community outreach coordinator for a tiny grassroots organization, Coal River Mountain Watch. Scarcely five feet tall, with dark hair, soft features, and a preference for baggy T-shirts, leggings, and sneakers, Bonds doesn’t seem very intimidating. Until she opens her mouth. "We are living with domestic terrorism from these coal barons," she told me 15 minutes into our first meeting. "And our lapdog politicians are working hand in hand with the corporations that put them in place to destroy our children’s world. They think we’re a bunch of ignorant hillbillies, but you don’t have to be very smart to figure that one out, do you?"

Bonds spends much of her time meeting with beleaguered residents, helping them navigate the maze of permitting laws and regulatory agencies that govern mining operations. (Or, as she puts it, "educatin’, motivatin’, and communicatin’.") One of only three staffers at Coal River Mountain Watch, she also organizes protests, lobbies at the state capitol, and answers the constantly ringing phone. Since April, when her efforts to stop mountaintop removal won her a Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activism, people have been calling from around the country, and even the world, seeking advice on how to keep mining from devastating their communities. When I visited, she hadn’t had a day off in three weeks. "We’re spread too thin here," she sighs.

Bonds’s ancestors settled in Marfork Hollow (or "holler," as the locals say) after the Revolutionary War. She grew up in that same narrow valley, rambling in the hills, picking paw-paws, and listening to the frogs in the stream. "Living in a hollow, you have a sense of unity, a sense of protection," Bonds says. "It’s as if you’re cradled in the arms of God." Not everything was easy: She and her six siblings grew up poor, and their father died of pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung disease, three months after he retired from underground mining. But she looks back on her Marfork childhood fondly, and raised her own daughter there. Then, in 1993, the A. T. Massey Coal Company moved in and began blasting. After a while, coal dust permeated Bonds’s home, and her young grandson, Andrew, developed asthma. "I started to notice black-water spills in the stream that six generations of my family had enjoyed," Bonds says. "One day Andrew stood in that stream, and the fish were dead all around his feet. I knew something was very, very wrong, so I began to open my eyes and pay attention."

When she investigated, she learned that Massey, a major operator throughout the Coal River Valley, was building a large slurry dam at the head of her hollow. There are 136 such dams, or "impoundments," in the state. Together they hold billions of gallons of wastewater, rock, and mining’s toxic byproducts, including mercury, lead, arsenic, and chromium. With accidental discharges a real danger—a 300-million-gallon spill by a Massey subsidiary in Kentucky recently created a state of emergency for ten counties—the people living below these dams sleep uneasily. Nervous neighbors began moving away. Bonds held out for years, but when her grandson, then 8, started concocting evacuation plans, she knew it was time to go.

Bonds’s new home, on a grassy, open hill some ten miles away from Marfork, is perfectly pleasant. It’s still safe enough to keep her car doors unlocked, and there’s plenty of room in the backyard for her pet deer, Highway, who likes to nuzzle into a bag of chips for a snack. But compared with living in a hollow, the house feels exposed, with both neighbors and nature farther away. She and Andrew miss their old fishing spots. "To save my family’s life, we needed to move out of that hollow, as much as it killed me," she says.

To really understand what it’s like to live with mountaintop removal, Bonds insists, I’ve got to meet people like Joe and Judith Barnett, longtime residents of Clearfork Hollow. "We used to go up into the hills, camping, picking ginseng, all the things that us country people do," says Joe, who worked as a miner for 26 years but is now a vocal critic of the industry. "Now it’s all gone." What they have in its place are photo albums full of dismal pictures: of clearcutting and explosions right behind their home; of tree debris washing into the creeks and coal trucks carving up their backyard; of cracks in their house from three years of blasting.

The 15-mile drive to Clearfork Hollow is winding and mostly scenic, except for a few piles of unusable coal along the roadside. As we turn off the main route, the hills close in around the car, wrapping us in green. Then a break in the trees reveals a deep gouge on the mountainside, a dirty, barren slope riddled with electric-blue puddles. When we get out of the car, a nearby resident comes over to talk to Bonds. Looking up at the denuded hillside and shaking her head, the young woman says, "If my daddy could see what they’d done to those mountains, he’d cry."

Small settlements like Clearfork Hollow, nestled between steep mountain ridges, are uniquely Appalachian, as is the close-knit, self-sufficient culture that they’ve nurtured since the 1800s. "God gave us everything that we needed in those mountains," Bonds says. "Life was centered around tending this commons, which brought communities and families together." Nearly everyone I met rhapsodized about teaching their children to hunt and fish, picking berries and morel mushrooms, and joining neighbors in the spring for traditional "ramp suppers," named for a kind of wild leek believed to wake up the body and mind.

Although these hills have long been primarily owned by absentee landlords, most allowed hunting and gathering on their property, and the people regarded the land as shared. But what 30 years of strip mines haven’t destroyed, they’ve closed off and guarded. Bonds and other former residents of Marfork Hollow, many of whom were bought out by the coal company, can now only go back to tend their family cemeteries. "At one time, coal brought families in West Virginia together," says Paul Nelson, a disabled underground miner with a thick Appalachian accent and a sly twinkle in his eyes. "When there was a deep mine, families moved into the community from miles. But this mountaintop removal is blasting everybody out of their houses."

The rapacious earth-moving has also brought the risks that previously existed below ground out into the open. "Every miner that goes underground knows the danger," says Paul’s wife, Nanette, a handsome, dignified woman whose voice begins to break as she talks. "He knows every day he may not come home. However, he makes that decision. Mountaintop removal puts everybody around at risk, whether they’re 90 years old or one day old, and they have no choice in the matter."

These dangers have galvanized the Nelsons, among others, in support of Bonds’s crusade. Her office is frequently bustling with locals wanting to look at mining maps, check on the status of permit applications, or just share their latest tale of woe. But in many ways she fights a battle as steep as the mountains used to be. The very land that inspires West Virginians to stand up for their home makes it difficult to organize: "Nothing’s close to anything," Bonds says. "You have to drive around the mountains to get from one place to another."

It also makes it easy for coal companies to hide their damages. When you fly in on a rattling 30-seat prop plane, the scars of mining and logging are all too clear. The remaining peaks appear tightly clustered; Bonds compares it to "a sleeping dragon, all coiled up on itself." On the ground, you can find your way through the narrow valleys, but the devastation is usually hidden behind the next ridge. You might catch a whiff of diesel on a placid hillside, or hear what sounds like a distant freeway (actually the rush of natural gas being let off) when there are no roads in sight. But with the coal companies controlling most of the land, even longtime residents rarely see the gouged mountains and sludge dams that threaten their future.

For all the trouble coal has brought, its hold on the community is still strong. Mining coal and burning it in power plants creates almost two-thirds of the business-tax revenue in the state, one of the poorest in the country. (When Bonds’s coworker, Patty Sebok, checks the local newspaper Web site one day, the business page comes up blank. "Does that speak volumes or what?" she laughs.) Coal permeates West Virginia politics, with hefty campaign contributions to state lawmakers and donations to local schools. Whitesville’s mayor works for Massey, and a huge billboard on the road into town asks, "Coal supports our schools. Do you support Coal?" Many people still do, whether out of a sense of indebtedness for the prosperity coal brought in the past, or fear for their survival in the present. Highly mechanized mountaintop removal cut mining jobs by nearly half in the last decade and sapped labor’s strength. The mostly nonunion miners are scared, says Joe Barnett. "They won’t allow their wives to speak out. They get mad at me for speaking out."

When Bonds and other activists set off on a seven-day march in 1999, they were spat on, cursed at, pelted with eggs, and tailed by coal supporters. After the first day, they had to have a police escort. Huge coal trucks have almost run Bonds’s car off the road, and two local activists had their tires punctured when they went to file paperwork for a hearing. Another woke up the morning after a big protest—and an announcement by Princess Beverly Coal Company that it was closing the mine near his home and laying off all the workers—to find his dog shot dead.

"When we first started out, people would come through the back door," says Janice Nease, the executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch. "Intimidation is a huge issue here."

Two people who aren’t frightened are Mary Miller and Pauline Canterberry, fiery septuagenarians known as the "Sylvester Dustbusters." Since Massey subsidiary Elk Run Coal Company opened a preparation plant just down the road in 1998, over the firm opposition of residents, their town of Sylvester has been blanketed with coal dust. "You can’t hang out clothes, you can’t even open the windows," Miller says. "If you want to sit on your porch, you have to wipe off the dust every day." The local elementary school is being closed, and many residents have left, but with Bonds’s inspiration and guidance, Miller and Canterberry are fighting to save their town, because they just can’t see living anywhere else.

Finishing each other’s sentences and laughing at inside jokes, Miller and Canterberry explain their five-year battle. How they’ve collected boxes upon boxes of carefully labeled Ziploc bags, each containing a paper towel covered in coal dust that they wiped from neighbors’ houses. How they’ve complained to state regulators with little result. How Miller’s house, appraised at $144,000, is now worth only $12,000 on account of the dust. ("That’s not even going to bury me!" she exclaims.) How they’ve organized their neighbors to sign petitions, demand hearings, and join a lawsuit against Elk Run. How the community has won jury awards and cleanup orders, but the company ties them up in appeals. "They think they’re either going to kill us or that we’re going to give up and quit," Miller says. "But I got news for them."

Although Miller and Canterberry’s anger about current conditions is easy to understand, their nostalgia for bygone days is harder to grasp. Canterberry’s father contracted silicosis from his job putting out mine fires with rock dust; he hemorrhaged to death at age 62 from the sores the disease created on his lungs. Her husband worked in the underground mines, too, and died of black lung. Yet Whitesville was booming in the 1940s, with two movie theaters, a bowling alley, two drug stores, four furniture stores, two grocery stores, and a dozen restaurants. Jobs were plentiful, neighbors looked after each other, and work conditions were steadily improving.

"Coal miners have always been the underdog, but after the union was organized in the 1930s, people’s lives became their own. They could buy their own homes, build their own futures," Canterberry says. "But we’ve gone back to before the ’30s under this type of mining they’re doing now."

While coal use dropped 30 percent over the last 15 years in western Europe, the United States is burning more coal than ever: Half the nation’s electricity comes from coal-fired plants. They also churn out massive amounts of mercury, greenhouse gases, and more smog-causing nitrogen oxide emissions than all the nation’s cars, vans, and SUVs combined. By some estimates, these pollutants cause almost 30,000 deaths each year, extending the risks of coal mining far beyond the coalfields.

For many environmentalists these problems have an obvious solution: Stop mining and burning coal. For West Virginia activists like Bonds, it’s not so simple. Her no-nonsense manner and family ties to the coal industry have helped her work successfully with the United Mine Workers of America on issues like Massey’s environmental and safety record and the mammoth coal trucks that regularly run overloaded on the valley’s narrow, winding roads. But the UMWA won’t take a stand against mountaintop removal. Many residents share the same reluctance.

So Bonds must walk a fine line between supporting "responsible" mining now, and preparing for a future without it. To further the first cause, she spent much of the summer visiting Rotary clubs, church basements, and community centers across the nation to drum up support for the Clean Water Protection Act, a bill in the House of Representatives that would nullify President Bush’s May 2002 changes to the Clean Water Act. Back at home, she lobbies elected officials to increase economic diversity in the state—to bring in jobs in alternative energy, or to help traditional pastimes like collecting medicinal herbs, quilting, and wood carving to grow into sustainable businesses. Tourism, which is adding more to state coffers each year while coal revenues decline, could provide another solution. But these possibilities depend on keeping the environment and the culture intact now.

"Our state has long been pillaged and raped for its natural resources, and at first, that was acceptable, because it provided our livelihood," says Bonds. But with the loss of jobs, "a veil has been lifted and people can actually see what’s happening." While driving into downtown Charleston for a protest, she smiles as she points out graffiti scrawled on a wall: The air is full of the dreams of sleeping people. Her people may still be slumbering, she says, but they’re starting to stir.

Jennifer Hattam is Sierra’s associate editor.

More Information
In spring 2005, public television will air The Appalachians, a three-hour series on the history and culture of Appalachia. The series is sponsored in part by the Sierra Club. Check your local PBS station for more broadcast details, or for more about the film, visit:


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