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Strip Mine Holiday

A mountaintop-removal coal mine threatens Fayetteville's new outdoor-adventure economy

Text by Jesse Wood | Photography by Harrison Shull

The hardware store and the pharmacy, with its old-fashioned soda fountain, are gone, but a century-old bank and the Fayette County Courthouse remain, and the historic Fayette Theater still hosts plays and concerts. Just a few blocks from downtown is the town park, at the rear of which a trail disappears into the forest, dropping into the New River Gorge.

"The playground is right out your back door," says Parker, a scruffy 48-year-old climber who first visited the area in 1985 after an article in Climbing magazine extolled its potential. Until then, the surrounding crags had been known only to a handful of locals. Today, the area's 1,400 routes are internationally famous. Parker moved to Fayetteville in 1994 to open a climbing shop and guide service. He's climbed all over the world, but says the Nuttall sandstone cliffs of the New River Gorge are unmatched. "As far as consistent quality of rock, cragging, and one-pitch climbing go, it's as good as it gets," he says. "There are miles and miles of quality routes, more than you could ever do."

The New River Gorge encompasses 70,000 acres and in most places is 1,000 feet deep, studded with rock cliffs where climbers are barely visible to the rafters and kayakers below. Massive boulders line the banks of the river, corralling the water. The latter half of the Lower New River—the premier paddling section of the gorge—takes out minutes from Fayetteville. Its 6.5 miles feature 10 Class IV and V rapids, but the water flow is bipolar; between exhilarating, tumultuous rapids with waves crashing at eye level are stretches of calm kick-back-and-have-a-beer currents.

The take-out on the Lower New is at Fayette Station, just before the impressive 876-foot-tall New River Gorge Bridge. Every October, Bridge Day—the "granddaddy" of all local events, as one guidebook describes it—brings close to 100,000 people to the New River Gorge Bridge to watch BASE jumpers and rappellers plunge into the gorge. In September, Gauley Fest, the largest whitewater festival in the world, attracts tens of thousands too. The New River rafting and kayaking season is pretty much year-round, but prime time at the Gauley River begins the first weekend after Labor Day, when the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Summersville Dam. The Gauley drops 26 feet per mile—and a heady 48 feet per mile in the steepest sections—and features many more challenging rapids than the New River.
"When all the other rivers from New Zealand to California are pretty much dry, we have some of the best whitewater in the world," says Bobby Bower, executive director of the West Virginia Professional River Outfitters Association. "It's known around the world that the Gauley is running and it's the place to be."

Just outside town, the Arrowhead Trail, which opened last year, features more than 13 miles of winding, rolling-hill, single-track mountain-biking trails. Then there are the canopy zip-line tours, horseback riding, hiking, and fishing.

The Boy Scouts of America recently announced that its new 10,000-acre Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, 20 miles south of town, will host the National Scout Jamboree in 2013, attracting thousands of Scouts and their families. The World Jamboree is slated there for 2019, and the prospect of tens of thousands of visitors has local outfitters and business leaders salivating. But, some worry, will the crowds continue to flock to an area scarred by an enormous mountaintop-removal coal mine?

Frasure Creek Mining wants to carve a five-mile swath through Page-Kincaid, Beards Fork, and other communities west of Fayetteville along Route 61. The project would cover 3,662 acres and create 20 "valley fills"—dumping grounds for the mountains that are razed to get at the coal seams below. Frasure Creek Mining received its first permit for the site in January 2004; it now has three active permits covering 1,600 acres. Five other permits are under review, and one is pending appeal. If all nine permits are approved, they will essentially create one giant mountaintop-removal site.

"You see our state propaganda—'Wild and Wonderful'—everywhere," says the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition's Tyree. "They paint this picture of how everything is beautiful, pristine, and protected. Yet, just in the back room, they are blowing up the mountains."

"They are definitely polluting the water," says Levi Rose, a watershed coordinator for the Plateau Action Network who manages the Wolf Creek Watershed, a classic paddling section in the gorge and a tributary to the Lower New. Rose recently analyzed all discharge reports from Frasure Creek Mining's Open Fork 1 mine from 2005 to 2010 and found nearly 100 violations. He also says that air pollution—primarily from diesel nitrate explosives—can make its way from the mine site to Fayetteville. Blasting can already be heard within the gorge, sometimes several times a day, and the strip mine is visible from high spots.

Another source of contention is the mine's foreign ownership: Frasure Creek is a subsidiary of Trinity Coal, which is owned by the Indian conglomerate Essar Group. At first, Essar had planned to send Frasure Creek's high-grade, metallurgical-quality coal (suitable for steel production) to India, but it now ships it to mills in Canada. Riffing on a pro-coal slogan, one climber who lives in Fayetteville notes that "it doesn't even keep the lights on."

Coal mining traditions run deep in West Virginia, and anything reeking of tree hugging is divisive. (Sample bumper sticker: "Earth First! We'll Strip Mine the Other Planets Later.") "It's still us and them," says John "Fisheye" Workman, sitting in front of the Lansing General Store, which he runs with his wife. His hands are stained black from sculpting chunks of coal—pieces as big as a fist, a dime's worth—into abstract shapes he can sell to tourists for $15. "If there weren't no coal mining, we'd be in a hell of a shape." His father and grandfather were miners, and his three sons work in the mines today. Two weeks before I met him, he'd been laid off from his job running big equipment—excavators, bulldozers, and rock trucks—at the Clay County strip mine, about 60 miles north of Fayetteville, and he's thinking about looking for work at the Frasure Creek site.

The environmental impacts of mountaintop removal do not concern Workman. "If I were to take you to a place that was mined 20 years ago, you wouldn't even know it was mined," he claims. "There are nice big ponds, big fields, all kinds of trees and wildlife around—bears, fish, beavers, muskrats, otters. If it's done right, usually the land turns out better than it was before they mined it."

The phrase "if it's done right" is used frequently by pro-coal folks. Far more often than not, however, it is done wrong, with grave consequences for the environment and the people of the region. According to a 2010 Gallup report, residents of the two congressional districts where the most mountaintop removal occurs (WV-03 and KY-05) rank dead last in physical and emotional well-being among the 435 districts nationwide.

Fayetteville's outdoor community isn't trusting the coal industry to "do it right" either. Parker, the outdoor-gear shop co-owner, hears the booming and sees the destruction while leading climbs in the gorge and has been a vocal opponent of mountaintop removal. But he emphasizes that he's not against coal miners. "Everybody's father and everybody's grandfather was a coal miner," Parker says. "You respect that because that is their heritage. I understand that. But like it or not, coal is not going to rule the day in Fayette County."

Jesse Wood is a freelance writer based in Boone, North Carolina. This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

A caption has been corrected.

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