Coal mining in Appalachia destroys more than mountains
Text by Daniel McGlynn | Photography by Shawn Poynter
Dustin White reaches down and clears a few fallen leaves off a grave. He takes a moment, looks around, then tells me about his great-grandmother Gladys Cook, who is buried here. Mama Gladys, as he calls her, was more like a grandmother, really, a family matriarch. She used to take White out fishing—called him her "little fisherman." Mama Gladys's husband is buried next to her, and a brother is laid to rest on the other side. A shared headstone marks their graves. At their feet are three small deer statues. Their plots are adorned with bouquets of fading plastic flowers.
We're standing in one of hundreds of family cemeteries that dot the mountains and hollows of West Virginia. Known as the Webb cemetery, it contains 37 marked graves, some designated by worn fieldstone with faded inscriptions, others by simple laminated-paper placards. The names belong to the Webbs, and the Cooks, and near the back there's a Green. The earliest graves are from the 1800s, the most recent from the 1990s. Many belong to children.
If you spend enough time with White, a broad-shouldered man with closely cropped hair, you will learn about the dozen or so generations of his family who lived—and died—near here. Cook is his mother's maiden name; the original Cook, Floyd, had a hundred grandchildren.
"These are all distant relatives," White says of the graves at his feet. "My family helped found Twilight and Lindytown and James Creek"—all towns in nearby hollows. He points up higher along the ridge, to the Montcoal mountaintop-removal mining site. "And that's what they're in the shadow of."
The Webb cemetery is on the side of a hill, surrounded by lush Appalachian hardwood forest in a hollow between Cook Mountain (named after Floyd) and Montcoal Mountain (where the Upper Big Branch mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners) in Boone County. Many of the people buried here lived in Lindytown, which is right down the road and was once home to about 100 people. But in 2009, Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources) started buying out the town's residents to make way for its nearby mountaintop-removal mining operation. One family refused to sell. All the other houses and buildings, including a church, were bulldozed. When we drove past, White pointed out small clearings in the woods, the footprints of disappeared homes. The road was rutted and falling apart and, like Lindytown, already becoming overgrown, fading back into the trees.
Cook and Montcoal Mountains are being emptied from the middle and flattened from the top. Even in the deep fold of the hollow, the destruction happening above is evident. Beyond a distinct tree line, the top of the mountain is being pulverized into small, flinty chips by explosives and heavy machinery. It is then being pushed into a neighboring valley, exposing the wide black stripes of coal seams. So far, 2,000 miles of the region's valleys have been filled in; by the end of the decade, it's estimated, 1.4 million acres of land will be affected.
Making the land uninhabitable is only one consequence of destroying it to pick it clean of coal. Burying drainages with rubble causes flooding, just as releasing particulates into the air and poisons into the water leads to a variety of illnesses. A 2011 West Virginia University study shows that communities near mountaintop-removal sites have a cancer rate double that of more distant towns. On top of all that, mountaintop-removal mining is destroying the people of Appalachia's connection to their history. Most of the cemeteries here predate the arrival of the coal companies; some were established before the founding of the country.
Standing in the middle of the Webb cemetery, you can look across the hollow to Montcoal Mountain—now mostly mounds of loose scree—and to another family cemetery, shrouded by a clump of trees. The rest of the land has been removed to get at the coal. "It's like its own little island up there," White says. Two other family cemeteries on Cook Mountain are similarly surrounded. Altogether there are 40 cemeteries in the area. Some are still visited and maintained by relatives of the dead, but as young people leave rural Appalachia in search of work, many cemeteries will become overgrown, forgotten, and possibly consumed by mining operations.
It's no accident that many Appalachian family cemeteries are on the tops of mountains or other high ground. People wanted to be buried high so that floodwaters couldn't reach them, ideally in graves facing east to catch the morning sun. In the past, mountaintops represented safety. Today they represent easy access to coal.
Thirty miles east of Cook Mountain, on Kayford Mountain, near the Coal River Valley, Larry Gibson worries about "the wiping out of my whole history." Gibson, in his 60s, is a well-known anti-mountaintop removal activist. Thirteen mining permits encircle his home, which is surrounded by nearly 12 square miles of surface mines in all directions. The blasting started in the late 1980s near a cluster of cabins on land that had been in his family for centuries. Even now, every so often there is a low concussive thud in the background, like a distant thunderclap, the sound of hundreds of pounds of explosives loosening the "overburden"—the soil and rock above the coal.
In June 2007, Gibson was giving a tour—something he continues to do—for people who'd come to Kayford to see what mountaintop removal looked like. From a distance he witnessed "a dozer going through a little green island in the middle of a wasteland." That was 300-year-old Stover cemetery (the family name of Gibson's great-grandmother), a small, forested patch with hundreds of graves that had survived nine years of mining. All around it were hard-cut highwalls, the cliffs created when heavy machinery scooped away earth and coal.
Gibson watched as the bulldozer pushed half the cemetery over a highwall. "The only other time when I felt that anger and pain was when I was seven and my brother was killed," he says. "I was going to get my guns." The full extent of the damage remains unknown because Gibson has not been allowed access to that part of the mountain. "Who does that? Who destroys a cemetery?" he says. "Now my people are part of the topsoil."
In 2010, West Virginia's Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Council of Churches proposed state legislation to increase family access to such cemeteries and to expand the protective zones around them from 100 to 300 feet. The legislature granted the former but not the latter. Families may now visit burial grounds even if they are on private property, and mining companies are required to answer a written request from a relative who wants to visit a family cemetery within 10 days.
The minimal measures protecting cemeteries, however, only concern those affected by coal mining. In 2004, descendants of people buried in a family cemetery in neighboring Logan County complained that it had been desecrated when a natural gas company had driven a bulldozer through the middle of it. The company, General Pipeline Construction, claimed that the graves were unmarked, overgrown, and not on any map, title, or land deed. The case went all the way to the state supreme court, which opined that in order to be legally protected from desecration, a cemetery must be defined by a fence and a sign and be regularly maintained. That decision is all that stands between such sites and the increasing extraction of the natural gas that is as abundant as coal in the mountains of Appalachia.
Dustin White grew up on the other side of Cook Mountain from Lindytown, in James Creek. As a kid, he played in the namesake creek and visited the mountaintop graveyard where his relatives were buried. Like many people in the region, he used to be pro-coal. After all, he says, "coal kept us fed and kept us warm." He used to cringe at the anti-coal TV ads run by environmental groups.
Then, in 2007, mountaintop removal began on Cook Mountain. White had imagined it would cover only a few acres and be well regulated. But when his uncle Danny Ray Cook was denied access to the family cemetery on the mountain that bore his name, White's views began to change. "They had already blocked the roads to the cemeteries," Cook says. "I talked to the miners and the foreman guy, and they weren't aware of any cemeteries up there. If I hadn't told them, they would have pushed them down the hill and covered it up."
"The cemetery has been there for 200 years," White says. "All they needed to do was ask somebody."
Even though his father, his grandfather, and most of his extended family worked in the mines, White moved to Cha
rleston, West Virginia, a few years ago to find a job. Now he's an anti-mountaintop removal activist. In addition, even though he's only in his late 20s, he has taken on the role of family historian, keeping the stories and genealogy that he has collected in a three-ring binder.
After being barred from visiting his relatives' graves, Cook became an activist too. Together with another relative, Leo Cook, he regularly comes by the Webb cemetery to check on the graves and trim the grass. He also works with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition as a volunteer cemetery-preservation organizer. "I'm just one person, and it's hard to take care of all these cemeteries around here," Danny Ray Cook says. He's trying to write grants to get materials to fix broken headstones and to find and define unmarked graves.
Crucial to the preservation process is getting the cemeteries registered with the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office. Age alone doesn't necessarily make a cemetery eligible; proving its historical worthiness requires a lengthy application process that can take years. It requires details on the number of graves, documenting measurements and inscriptions, even the site's latitude and longitude. To further complicate matters, land ownership and caretaker roles are often ill defined or unknown. "A lot of this stuff is not in the public record," White says. "You spend centuries burying people in a place and never think that you need it registered." And even registration doesn't guarantee that the hallowed ground will remain intact, for reasons ranging from bureaucratic bottlenecks to rogue bulldozer operators.
In what used to be a front yard in Lindytown is the Smith family cemetery, with a half-dozen graves. Cook stands next to a sign he constructed with his name and contact information on it. "This is one where I sent all of the information in, but it's still not registered," he says. Despite the hassles, however, he persists. "When I'm in a family cemetery, I know in my heart that they can feel my presence. It's like visiting them on a Sunday afternoon at their house. I can be as close to them as when they passed."
Before I leave, Dustin White takes me to the top of Cook Mountain. His mother, Nada Cook White, who is wearing an I [heart] WEST VIRGINIA T-shirt, tells me about how people used to come up on the mountain in the summer to look for ginseng and morel mushrooms. Extended families would gather for picnics, and one time a black bear rambled up and started sniffing Dustin's little sister, who had been left alone for a moment on a blanket.
Just before we head back down along the perimeter of the rapidly expanding mountaintop-removal site, Dustin White looks back at the clump of trees that rings the small island of Cook cemetery. "The good thing about having a cemetery up here is, that's where things will start over," he says, already looking forward to the day when Cook Mountain is mined out and the reclamation work starts. "The seeds from these trees will replant the forests here."
Not if the coal companies have their way, however. They've floated the notion of consolidating all the isolated family graveyards into a single public cemetery, or at least moving them out of the way. White bristles at the thought. Probably only the headstones would get moved, he says, and maybe a dirt sample. Exhuming the graves—especially the older ones—would be nearly impossible. Besides, White says, "it will be a cold day in hell before I let them move Mama Gladys."
Daniel McGlynn is a California-based journalist.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.