The Battle Over West Virginia’s Coal Country
Ed. note: On August 21, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its latest blow to environmental regulations: they plan to roll back regulations of coal-fired power plants. On the same day, President Trump held a rally in West Virginia. Supporters celebrated the move because he plan is expected to boost the coal industry, but environmentalists say that the use of coal must be phased out to curb climate change and protect public health. In Spring 2013, Dr. Nicole Fabricant, an associate professor of anthropology at Towson University, brought a group of students to West Virginia to see the battle playing out between coal industry supporters and environmentalists. Here is her story.
Late at night on top of West Virginia’s Kayford Mountain, after most of us had retreated to our tents, we heard the deep rumble of a diesel pickup truck. “Take a bath, you fuckin’ hippies! Go home, tree-huggers,” someone yelled out the passenger window. The truck passed through the campsite without stopping.
The following evening as we were meeting with local activists, four 4-wheelers revved up the mountain. This time, instead of passing through, the drivers stopped and parked at our campsite. Three women and three men blocked our vehicles with their own SUV. They surrounded our guide, Junior.
It was a late Spring night in 2013. I’d brought a group of my college anthropology students across the country to camp out on Kayford Mountain for a few days. We’d planned to meet with environmental activists and study mountaintop removal coal mining—but we were also learning about the dynamics driving a deep wedge through a community.
Our main teacher was Junior, a twenty-something activist with a full beard and a thick West Virginia accent. He was born and raised in Whitesville, West Virginia, a town with a population of about 450 that’s a 20-minute drive from Kayford Mountain.
“When I was a little kid, you could walk through Whitesville, West Virginia, and there were two movie theaters, a bowling alley and a bar on every corner. There were people here,” Junior had told us a few days earlier, his face illuminated by our campfire. “But from the 1980s until today, there’s been a mass exodus and die-off in West Virginia, and Whitesville has been one of the hardest areas hit.”
Mountaintop removal (MTR)—sometimes called “strip mining on steroids”—is the preferred method of mining coal today, particularly in Appalachia. It is a form of surface mining at the summit or summit ridge of a mountain where coal seams are extracted by removing the land through explosives or dynamite. Companies like Massey Energy, the fourth-largest producer of coal in the United States and the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia, transitioned to this form of mining as it was a cheaper, easier, and faster way to mine coal. When Junior graduated high school in the mid-2000s, he worked for Massey Energy as a security guard. It wasn’t until he saw the way they were blowing up Kayford Mountain that he was called to activism.
Junior saw firsthand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on his home town. He said once companies began employing this method of mining, many lost their jobs or moved away—or, like him, fell ill. Junior suffers from a chronic stomach illness.
“I was poisoned by the coal companies. Our water was often blood red and smelled like sulfur,” he said. “You are looking at someone who might die because they started pumping liquid coal waste, or slurry, into my home when I was a kid. And we drank this toxic water.”
Convinced something had to be done, Junior talked to local activist Judy Bonds and took a job working for Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental organization working to bring an end to MTR. Since then, he’s been part of civil disobedience actions, even hanging himself from large draglines. As a result of his activism and his clear position against the coal companies, his family has disowned him—and so, we learned that night, had others in the town.
On Kayford Mountain that night, one blonde woman got out of her SUV to threaten Junior. “We have been looking for Junior for years. We are armed,” she said. ”We have guns and we will get him.” She stood beside her husband, a coal-miner.
Later, we’d learn that this woman and her companions were part of an organization called the Friends of Coal. Their mission statement reads, “The Friends of Coal is dedicated to inform and educate West Virginia citizens about the coal industry and its vital role in the state’s future. Our goal is to provide a united voice for an industry that has been and remains a critical economic contributor to West Virginia.” But at the time, all we knew was that they were angry.
We hastily began packing up tents and other belongings in the dark. One 19-year-old student, David Reische, distracted the Friends of Coal as we hid Junior in our vehicle. “Do you guys mind if I record it? It’s okay if you don’t want me to,” David asked. “Go ahead, that’s alright, I don’t care,” replied the heavy-set blonde woman. But another woman protested. “Every time we get on film it’s used against us.”
David pointed the camera away from their faces. “I’ll be perfectly honest with you guys, I’d be perfectly happy to tell both sides of the story,” he said. “If you want me to shut it, though, I’d be more than happy to.”
Once the camera was off, the Friends of Coal spoke without restraint. The blonde woman said that the health studies about coal, which have found that MTR can increase nearby residents’ chances of getting cancer, premature death, and other illnesses, are inaccurate.
“The doctors are wrong. They don’t know what they are talking about,” she said. “The reclaimed mining sites are beautiful.”
She pointed to the blown-up mountain ranges surrounding us. “These are reclaimed sites of the Appalachian mountain range. In the aftermath of blasting, coal companies are required to bring mountains back to original contours.” She described the restored mountaintop removal sites as “bucolic.”
“Families have picnics out there and ride their 4-wheelers around,” the woman continued. She said the problem wasn’t the coal or the coal companies—it was the environmentalists. The environmentalists, she said, were the reason her husband lost his mining job; the reason his employer went bankrupt.
Another women stepped forward. “These environmentalists want us to lose our jobs in coal,” she said. “What is the alternative? What is the alternative? More Wal-Marts? These are not decent jobs!”
“With coal jobs, you could feed a family of four to eight people,” she continued. “My grandparents worked in the coal industry, my parents worked in the coal industry. We are all now tied to the coal industry.”
All of our visitors from the Friends of Coal expressed their struggle to find jobs that paid living wages. The only industry they’d known to do so was coal. They were desperate to protect these jobs—with guns, if necessary.
Advances in computer engineering and machinery facilitated the rise of MTR. Companies now use large, technologically complex machinery like draglines—$100 million machines that can move one hundred tons of material with each scoop—and powerful explosives of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The explosives are used to remove up to 400 vertical feet of mountain to expose the underlying coal seams. It’s an efficient method for businesses like Massey that want to accumulate capital in a relatively short period of time.
But studies show that MTR is extremely destructive to the environment, as excess rock and soil full of toxic mining byproducts are often dumped into nearby valleys. Although valley-fills are supposed to be carefully terraced and engineered with water diversion ditches, they frequently bury both intermittent and permanent streams. More than 1,200 miles of streams have been buried in the Appalachian region, and possibly as many as 700 miles in West Virginia alone.
Though MTR is a relatively new method of coal extraction, the business model goes back to the old coal barons of the 19th century, when railroaders and other industrial scouts developed plans and infrastructure to harvest Appalachia’s rich natural resources. As Junior told us, “West Virginia has always been a resource colony.”
As World War I escalated, so did the demand for coal: Nearly 12,000 mines employed over 700,000 men. The work was dangerous. Black lung and other diseases were rampant. The United Mine Workers of America union was established to fight back against the exploitative conditions of coal companies in the region. Although UMWA was one of the most powerful unions in the United States through much of the 20th century, it’s been weakened by the assault on unions that started in the 1980s. The weakened UMWA left miners with less and less of the critical leverage necessary to negotiate strong contracts, leaving workers more and more vulnerable. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, who took a militant approach to union busting, said, “Unions, communities, people—everybody’s gonna have to learn to accept that in the U.S. you have a capitalist society, and capitalism, from a business standpoint, is the survival of the most productive.”
As he worked to weaken union power, Blankenship popularized MTR, which requires fewer workers and more machinery. Journalist Jeff Goodale once described Blankenship as the “embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the business and politics of energy in America today—a man who pursues naked self-interest and calls it patriotism, who blasts mountains to get a few inches of coal and uses his money and influence to ensure that America remains enslaved to the 19th century idea of burning coal equals progress.”
Blankenship was responsible for the death of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010. It was the worst coal dust explosion in the U.S. since 1970. Much of this had to do with cutbacks in safety regulations which ensured that levels of methane gas in the mines would be monitored. Despite all of this, Blankenship ran for U.S. Senate in 2018 with substantial support among miners. Much to environmentalists’ chagrin, he nearly won the West Virginia Senate seat.
On our trip to Kayford Mountain, residents and environmental activists said that burying the headwaters of streams causes irreversible damage to regional ecosystems, and blasting away layers of mountains removes layers of the aquifer. MTR also increases the possibility of flash floods. Further, coalfield residents point to the excessive dust in their communities, and the rocks and other debris from blasts that fall into people’s yards and damage property.
There is, however, a deep cleavage between environmentalists advocating for alternative forms of energy, moving beyond coal, and West Virginians whose families and communities have depended upon coal jobs across many generations who are protective of both their livelihood and history—a cleavage we saw play out on the mountain that night.
Junior heard the threats from the Friends of Coal. With some students’ assistance, he climbed into the back of our van to hide. We hastily piled in and began driving away. The Friends of Coal supporters trailed behind us.
Junior is one of the most outspoken activists against the coal companies in West Virginia. Although his extended family stopped speaking to him, he said to us on the mountain a few days earlier that the hardest part of this fight is not having enough time. And his fight wasn’t abstract: There was a seven billion gallon coal slurry dam beneath his house. If there is a major storm that caused flooding, the slurry would pour out into the town, unleashing toxins and washing away homes in its wake. When a similar disaster occurred in West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek Hollow in the early 1970s, it killed 125 people, injured another 1,121, left over 4,000 homeless, and destroyed over 500 houses.
As we sped down the mountain away from the Friends of Coal, Junior spoke about this from the back of the van. “It’s this sense of urgency that most people don’t understand,” Junior said. “Whenever I see them tearing down these mountains, I just feel this pit in the bottom of my stomach.” Then Junior exclaimed, “You know that was somebody’s home or special spot.”
When students asked Junior why he doesn’t just leave the area, he said that West Virginia is the only place he can call home.
“The people here are the kindest, most hardworking people you’ll ever meet. They’d give you the shirt off their back if they ever thought you needed it. And this place here just has this air about it—it’s beautiful.” The students looked unconvinced.
“You can’t understand unless you’ve been here,” Junior continued “Take a drive up a hollow, and you’re surrounded by this canopy of trees and mountain creeks—I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s worth fighting for.”
The four trucks followed us out of town, passing us at high speed on the narrow, two-lane mountain roads, cutting directly in front of us and waiting by the side of the road to intimidate us into leaving as quickly as possible. We called on some of Junior’s fellow activists from Coal River Mountain Watch for reinforcement. They agreed to pick up Junior at a nearby rest stop. We anxiously pulled into a McDonald’s and waited.
As we waited for them to come get him, Junior nervously pressed his chest, as though rearranging something below the cloth. Confused, a student asked what was under his jacket. Junior unzipped it to reveal the bulletproof vest underneath. We were reminded that the fight we’d seen play out in textbooks was, for him, a matter of life and death.
Across the street, we saw a group of familiar 4-wheelers parked outside of a motel. We scanned the windows. The Friends of Coal looked on. Shortly after, the Coal River Mountain Watch activists arrived to retrieve Junior. Too shaken to drive back to Kayford Mountain, we said our goodbyes to Junior and drove six hours northeast to Towson. It was the middle of the night, but no one slept.
Five years later, Junior’s fight has only become more urgent. Last year, the Trump administration halted a study on the health risks of MTR for residents of Appalachia. New research shows that though the coal industry is on the decline, three times more land is being stripped per each ton of coal than in the 1980s. Seventeen percent of U.S. energy still comes from coal.
Twice as many jobs are now being created by renewable energy than by all fossil fuel industries combined, but the idea that fossil fuel industries should be saved to preserve employment is still pervasive. West Virginia has strict restrictions on renewable energy industries, like solar. Still, efforts are underway. Groups like Solar Holler are bringing solar jobs to West Virginia.
Junior still lives in Whitesville and works for Coal Mountain River Watch. He says he has no plans to leave.
“I’ve always said that I’d just as soon live in a shack on the Coal River than in a mansion on Wall Street.”