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Blowing their tops

As West Virginia’s coal industry declines and jobs evaporate, is detonating mountaintops good stewardship?

Blowing their tops

Aerial view of mountaintop removal and impoundments in southern West Virginia (Photo by Emily Belz)

Mario Tama/Getty Images

An explosive is detonated at an A&G Coal Corporation surface mining operation in the Appalachian Mountains on April 16, 2012, in Virginia.

Earth Justice

Bo Webb

Photo by Emily Belz

Former miner Chuck Nelson stands on Kayford Mountain, a mountaintop removal site.

WEST VIRGINIA—Bo Webb knows when his family arrived in West Virginia: 1821. He lives where his family has long lived, in Peachtree Hollow in coal country. The mountains press close to the roads, which are lined with old storefront Pentecostal and Baptist churches. The towns around here, like Eunice, are named after coal mining executives’ wives, mothers, and sisters. Children play football in a field next to a coal processing facility.

Webb’s father, all of his uncles, and his many cousins worked in the underground mines, and mining accidents killed one uncle and crippled another. Driven to poverty by a bust cycle in the 1950s, his family moved to Cleveland when he was 12, but Webb came back to West Virginia as an adult.

Everything that happens in the coal industry is close, including the industry’s most controversial practice: blowing the tops off mountains. Five hundred yards up the mountain from Webb’s property is a mountaintop removal site, where coal companies have leveled mountaintops with explosives to reach thin seams of coal. Everyone in the valley can hear the explosions.

Webb points at a ridge as we drive the winding roads a few miles from his home: “Right on the other side of the tree line, there’s nothing there.”

Most West Virginians support mountaintop removal (MTR) as part of their general support for the coal industry, but critics, including a group of evangelical Christians in the state, say the practice harms more than the state’s natural beauty; it could be doing severe harm to West Virginians’ health and the state’s long-term economic prospects. 

The coal industry is crumbling in West Virginia as a new abundance of natural gas provides energy at lower prices. The industry blames the Environmental Protection Agency’s increased restrictions for coal’s decline, but cheap natural gas has been a powerful opponent. Between 2008 and 2012, natural gas prices dropped 69 percent as energy companies increased gas extraction from shale. Concurrently, coal from Montana and Illinois has become cheaper. Appalachian coal is more expensive to extract.

Coal jobs here have been disappearing for decades as companies have moved to surface operations like mountaintop removal that require less manpower. The number of coal jobs in West Virginia is almost half what it was in the early 1980s. Small towns in West Virginia are dying, like many small towns across America where industry has disappeared. The only traffic light is out in Whitesville, a town near Peachtree Hollow that used to bustle with honky-tonk joints and two theaters.

‘It’s a short-term economic boost for long-term consequences.’

Even as coal is declining and jobs are disappearing, coal companies continue the controversial practice of mountaintop removal. Some MTR sites take hundreds of feet off a peak and fill valleys with the debris. The valley fills bury waterways. Appalachian Voices, a group that opposes MTR, estimates that MTR has shorn off 500 Appalachian mountains. Critics say mountaintop removal is ruining areas for future development and providing few jobs in return.

Some conservative evangelicals in the state have opposed the practice for years, although they’ve made little progress because they’re in the minority locally.

Allen Johnson of Dunmore, W.Va., an evangelical, leads Christians for the Mountains, a West Virginia group that opposes mountaintop removal. “It’s a short-term economic boost for long-term consequences,” said Johnson. “It’s not using God’s creation in a fruitful and sustainable ... way.”

Webb, for his part, supports underground mining. But he opposes mountaintop removal (MTR) despite his coal roots. Years ago when he first started publicly opposing MTR, many of his cousins who work in the industry quit speaking to him. But he said as they’ve begun to lose their underground jobs to mountaintop removal, they’ve privately told him they appreciate what he’s doing.

“I wasn’t opposing their job, I was opposing mountaintop removal,” Webb said. “It’s not about coal. … I honor what [they’re] doing.”

West Virginians like Webb and Johnson are most concerned about what is unseen: the health effects of mountaintop mining. A few studies have shown that communities around MTR sites have significantly higher cancer rates and birth defects than other Appalachian communities. Asthma is common. According to studies from Indiana University researcher Michael Hendryx, areas around mountaintop mining have 63.3 excess deaths per 100,000 per year compared with non-mining areas, controlling for health and poverty disparities.

Hendryx and another leading researcher on this topic, West Virginia University’s Michael McCawley, think high levels of ultrafine particles from the blasting might be responsible for the health problems. But McCawley emphasizes that his data showing health problems around high levels of ultrafine particles is correlative, not necessarily causative.

Students from Christian colleges like Wheaton and Dordt went door to door in coal country conducting health surveys that contributed to some of these studies. Webb is pushing a bill in Congress called the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act that would halt mountaintop removal permits until the federal government conducts a definitive health study in the MTR communities.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents coal interests in the state, disputed the studies. “They make emotional decisions and conclusions to fit whatever their argument may be,” he said. He says MTR critics “just don’t like mining. It looks like you’re tearing up a forest.”

Webb recently got word that the 2,000-acre mountaintop removal site by his home is being shut down. He guesses that is due to market forces: “They’re not out of coal there.” The company that owns the mine, Alpha Natural Resources, renewed its five-year mining permit last year. So when the market is more favorable, the company can begin operations again.

When a company is finally done with an MTR site, it is supposed to reclaim the land. The coal companies say the surfaces can be reclaimed for pastureland. The compacted terrain of the shorn-off mountains resists deep roots, so trees are a rare sight on reclaimed mountaintops. The companies also argue the sites provide coveted flatland for construction in mountainous terrain.

But if West Virginia is trying to diversify its economy and promote tourism, isn’t slicing hundreds of feet off peaks problematic? Raney argues mining is “supplemental” to the tourism industry. He mentioned a zip line that was built over a former surface mining site. One reclaimed MTR site has an airstrip, another has a golf course. (Webb said, “No one goes there.”) An ATV trail on a former surface mine has been a successful tourism spot.

“[Do they have] a million acres of zip line?” Webb asked. “That’s how much they’ve destroyed.”

Get in a single-engine plane over southern West Virginia and mountaintop removal is ugly. Removal sites cover the landscape like patches on a quilt, some of them reclaimed with grass growing, others open and active with trucks. The skyline is forever altered and looks as if someone took a butter knife across the tops of the ridges.

Impoundments, large ponds that hold the slurry from processing coal, also dot the ranges. One impoundment holding billions of gallons of slurry sits near a former elementary school. Webb worked for years to secure private and state funding to move the children from the school to a new school a few miles away.

Some sites don’t look much better on the ground. Walk through the trees to the edge of a cliff and spread below you is a rocky moonscape where a mountaintop used to tower hundreds of feet above. This spot, next to Kayford Mountain, was a site that was over a decade old. Webb says the company at this site brought in a topsoil substitute and planted scrub trees, but they didn’t take. One local said the area floods more than it used to, because nothing stops the runoff on the mountains. Webb says companies will sometimes keep their mining permit active so they don’t have to do reclamation.

Raney counters that companies are building roads and providing a large slice of the state’s tax revenue. He said miners wouldn’t mess up the environments where their children and grandchildren are going to live.

“The people working in the mines, I call them the best environmentalists in the world,” Raney said, referring to miners’ reclamation work. “They’re not standing on a corner preaching about it, carrying on or protesting.”

Chuck Nelson is a retired fourth-generation miner who opposes MTR—one of the few. A coal processing facility near his home was spewing particulates, leaving a quarter inch of coal dust on everything in his house. He says he was blacklisted from coal jobs when he complained about it. He saw a flier for Christians for the Mountains one day and called them up to hear what they were doing.

“A lot of people look at [MTR] as a blessing. I look at it as a curse,” Nelson said. “Cleanup is gonna fall back on taxpayers.”

Regulation of the coal industry largely falls to the state, where officials are chummy with the state’s main industry. Raney, for example, used to be a state reclamation inspector. Federal regulators oversee waterways, so they can only veto permits in relation to water.

In coal country, outsiders have a hard time breaking in. That’s why Johnson with Christians for the Mountains thinks local organizations are critical to win “hearts and minds.” He steers clear of larger environmental groups like the Sierra Club. He said he talks more sensitively about MTR when his neighbor is employed in the coal industry.

Opposition to the state’s main industry can have its consequences too. A woman tried to run over Webb when he was participating in a protest against mountaintop removal; the police caught her, but Webb declined to press charges when he realized it was his barber. She was crying, and Webb asked her why she did it. No one in her family worked in coal, she said, but her customers were in the industry. He says he’s been threatened other times.

“There’s a coal culture,” said Johnson. “They’re proud of the culture. That’s who they are.”

If coal is waning, some West Virginians are looking for alternate forms of income. An organization called Create West Virginia has been trying to jump-start a more creative, knowledge-based economy in the state. The organization, run by a former communications director for the state tourism board, Rebecca Kimmons, puts together annual conferences in small towns around the state.

In 2013, the organization held an exposition in Richwood, a former coal and lumber town that is dwindling. For a week the group filled the 29 empty storefronts on the dead main street with businesses from other parts of the state. The high-school marching band came through under new twinkly lights and snow fell. It was more about stirring ideas than making actual investments.

“Not every town can be revived,” Kimmons said. “Not every town should be revived.”

Kimmons grew up in coal country in southern West Virginia. She remembers playing on slag heaps, and her family lived in a New River Coal Company house. She wants to challenge her fellow West Virginians to think of themselves as part of the knowledge economy.

“What you have been told about yourself all your life is that you are only good enough to do the grunt work,” said Kimmons. “We can work with our minds.”

For his part, Johnson worked on bringing dial-up internet to his rural community in the 1990s and now is working on getting broadband speeds. Building basic infrastructure and uncontaminated surroundings is critical to moving to a new economy.

“Appalachia has dug itself such a deep hole in the ground,” said Johnson. “Community development has to come up out of the ashes.” 

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  •  JEFF's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:19 am

    I was put off by the shallow treatment of 'good stewardship'. It seemed to consist of being ugly and a couple of inconclusive studies about health. The emotive tenor is not up to the thoughtful reporting World is known for.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:19 am

    Good article, but ugh. So Grisham's book on the atrocities of the coal mining industry, and the locals who support it, was right. But the book still was a stinker.You shouldn't really be surprised at the locals fighting for their livelihood - it's all they know. But the nation supports and encourages abortion, so nothing should surprise you.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:19 am

    socialworker - I too was annoyed at Grisham's book, for many reasons. This is crazy. 

  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:19 am

    I was annoyed hen I read John Grisham's book about mountain top removal because I didn't believe his claims.   I guess they were true.  Seems very sad.

  • Gailon
    Posted: Sat, 04/08/2017 11:12 am

    This is a difficult issue. Thoughtful readers can appreciate being given both sides--unlike so much journalism today. However, my evaluation is that the writer leaned toward the "no removal" side of the equation. I would like to see a follow-up story that explores this more deeply. As a veteran television reporter, I appreciate the effort that obviously went into this story. This issue is different than the climate change one. Advocates of global warming have gone off the deep end. Blessings! Keep up the good work, Emily!