Losing a mountain for coal

LINDYTOWN, West Virginia – To reach a lost American place, here just a moment ago, follow a thin country road as it unspools across an Appalachian valley’s grimy floor, past a coal operation or two, a church or two, a village called Twilight.

After passing an abandoned union hall with its front door agape, look to the right for a solitary house, tidy, yellow and tucked into the stillness. This is nearly all that remains of a West Virginia community called Lindytown.

The coal that helped to create Lindytown also destroyed it. Here was the church; here was its steeple; now it’s all gone, along with its people. Gone, too, are the surrounding mountaintops. To mine the soft rock that we burn to help power our light bulbs, our laptops, our way of life, heavy equipment has stripped away the trees, the soil, the rock – what coal companies call the “overburden.”

A couple of years ago, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, which owns a sprawling mine operation behind and above the Richmond home, bought up Lindytown. Many of its residents signed Massey-proffered documents in which they also agreed not to sue, testify against, seek inspection of or “make adverse comment” about coal-mining operations in the vicinity.

You might say that both parties were motivated. Massey preferred not to have people living so close to its mountaintop mining operations. And the residents preferred not to live amid a dusty industrial operation that was altering the natural world about them. So the Greens sold, as did the Cooks, and the Workmans, and the Webbs … Here in Boone County, coal rules. The rich seams of bituminous black have dictated the region’s destiny for many generations. The county has the largest surface-mining project (the Massey operation) in the state and the largest number of coal-company employees (more than 3,600). Every year it receives several million dollars in tax severance payments from the coal industry. Without coal, says Larry Lodato, the director of the county’s Community and Economic Development Corp., “You might as well turn out the lights and leave.”

Various government regulations require that coal companies return the stripped area to its “approximate original contour,” or “reclaim” the land for development in a state whose topography can thwart plans for even a simple parking lot. As a result, the companies often dump the removed earth into a nearby valley to create a plateau, and then spray this topsy-turvy land with seed, fertilizer and mulch.

About 16 kilometres from Lindytown, outside a drab convenience store in the unincorporated town of Van, a rake-thin woman named Maria Gunnoe climbs into a maroon Ford pickup that is adorned with a bumper sticker reading: “Mountains Matter – Organize.” Gunnoe is 42, with sorrowful dark eyes, long black hair and a desire to be on the road only between shift changes at the local mining operations – and only with her German shepherd and her gun.

Less than a decade ago, Gunnoe was working as a waitress when a mountaintop removal operation in the small map dot of Bob White disrupted her “home place.” It filled the valley behind her house, flooded her property, contaminated her well and transformed her into a fierce opponent of mountaintop removal. Through her work with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, she has become such an effective environmental advocate that in 2009 she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. But no one threw a parade for her in Boone County, where some deride her as anti-coal; that is, anti-job.

Gunnoe turns onto the two-lane road, Route 26, and heads toward the remains of Lindytown. On her right stands Van High School, her alma mater. On her left, the community centre where dozens of coal-company workers disrupted a meeting of environmentalists back in 2007.

Gunnoe drives on. Past an out-of-context clot of land that rises hundreds of meters in the air – “a valley fill,” she says, that has been “hydroseeded” with fast-growing, non-native plants to replace the area’s lost natural growth: its ginseng root, its goldenseal, it hickory and oak, maple and poplar, black cherry and sassafras.

“And it will never be back,” she says.

Gunnoe has a point.

James Burger, a professor emeritus of forestry and soil science at Virginia Tech University, said the valley fill process often sends the original topsoil to the bottom. With the topography and soil properties altered, Burger says, native plants and trees do not grow as well.

According to a statement from Shane Harvey, the general counsel for Massey, this is what happened: Many of Lindytown’s residents were either retired miners or their widows and descendants who welcomed the opportunity to move to places more metropolitan or with easier access to medical facilities. Interested in selling their properties, they contacted Massey, which began making offers in December 2008 – offers that for the most part were accepted.

James Smith, 68, a retired coal miner from Lindytown, says the company’s statement is true, as far as it goes. Yes, Lindytown had become home mostly to retired union miners and their families. And yes, some people approached Massey about selling their homes.

But, Smith says, many residents wanted to leave Lindytown only because the mountaintop operations above had ruined the quality of life below.

When the explosions began, dust filled the air.

“You might as well take the money and get rid of your torment,” he says, adding that he received more than $300,000 for his property. “After they destroyed our place, they done us a favour and bought it.”