West Virginia is no country for young men. Nor is it a country for old men, brown men, poor men or women. West Virginia is a country for rich men; men with no names and no faces who live far away from her borders and sip bottled water as they foul everyone else’s. These men think that West Virginia’s land is their land, but it’s not. No one can ever truly own that land. They can bulldoze it, dynamite it, dig great big holes in it and build on it, but they can never own it. To own is to possess and I have yet to meet the man who can possess something after he’s dead. Sure, we’ve got all sorts of rules and laws in this country for protecting people’s stuff while they’ve got life in ’em and for making sure that stuff gets passed on to their kin when they die, but there aren’t any laws on the books that confer property rights onto someone who’s perpetually laying under six feet of sod and dirt. Embalmed flesh and ascendant souls have no use for property rights and warranty deeds and, contrary to the American ethos, he who dies with the most stuff does not win. He who dies with the most stuff just leaves the biggest mess behind.
Last July, I drove into the heart of coal country in southern West Virginia to see what sort of mess is made when companies spend a couple of decades detonating three million pounds of explosives a day in an attempt to literally blow the tops off of mountains in Appalachia. As per the instructions given to me by Elise Keaton, an environmentalist friend of mine who would be giving me a tour that day, I turned off of the West Virginia Turnpike at exit 79 and parked my car underneath the overpass and waited for her to arrive. I hadn’t asked Elise why we were meeting below a highway and not a coffee shop or a gas station, but once I got off the highway it became quite clear that we weren’t meeting at one of those places because they didn’t have any of them around here. This was about as close to the middle of nowhere as you’re going to get east of the Mississippi. All of the usual highway exit staples were gone. There weren’t any Flying J truck stops or Taco Bells or Dunkin Donuts to be found here; just a couple of one lane county roads that wind through small clusters of houses and dead end almost as soon as they begin. With that being said, it is still impossible not to feel like you’re a degenerate, felonious junky while waiting alone in your car to meet someone underneath a highway overpass, so I was relieved when Elise’s car pulled up about a minute after I did.
We both got out of our cars and came around to exchange the awkward pleasantries that are customary for introductory meetings, but it quickly became apparent that Elise didn’t put much stock in acute self- consciousness, choosing instead to act as if we’d known each other for ages. She was unmistakably a country girl, not through dint of any exaggerated Appalachian twang or style of dress, but rather in the way she carried herself. With her strawberry-blonde hair and fair complexion, she looked like the Scots-Irish cousin of the protagonist in a Willa Cather novel. Had Elise told me that both of her parents had passed away when she was 11 and that she was forced to raise all 4 of her younger brothers and sisters while going to school and maintaining the family farm, I probably would have believed her. After just a few minutes talking, I could feel a conviction and measured strength about her. It was the sort of strength that is neither born nor bred, but rather inherited from ancestors and long ago ghosts who flit about the places you grew up in.
Elise had been raised just outside of Hinton, West Virginia—a small town about 75 miles southeast of where we were standing that sits on the southernmost edge of the New River Gorge. In actuality, there is nothing new about the New River, which can trace it’s origins back to the preglacial Teays River, which was created anywhere between 3 million and 320 million years ago and used to run from North Carolina all the way up to Illinois. With the coming of the last ice age, most of the Teays was destroyed or re-routed by glacial movement, making the New and Kanawha Rivers the only segments that were left intact. As a result, the landscape in and around the New River Gorge is unlike anything else you or I will ever see in the natural world. Go rafting through the gorge and you’ll find yourself riding on the last remnants of the second oldest river on the planet, bracketed by a 4,000 foot ledger of earth’s experience as written in the compacted detritus of life.
In 1978, the National Park Service created the New River Gorge National River, a 53 mile swath of protected national parkland in and around the New River Gorge, effectively keeping it safe from the prying hands of big coal, who had established more than 50 coal mining towns along the banks of the New River in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With its conservation guaranteed by the federal government, the New River Gorge has evolved over the past few decades into one of West Virginia’s most popular tourist destinations and a crucial part of Southern West Virginia’s economy as coal and timber production continue to decline. A study conducted in 2006 on the economic effects of the New River Gorge National River on the four counties it runs through showed that the gorge generated over $130 million in annual spending, creating more than 3,500 jobs and $49 million in resident income. Perhaps more importantly, all of those 3,500 jobs are sustainable and the bulk of that spending stays in-county and in-state, rather than heading out to Big Coal’s corporate headquarters in St. Louis. Over 63% of National Park Service spending on the gorge stayed in Southern West Virginia and all of the industries that benefit from tourist traffic like restaurants and hotels keep their spending local, generating millions of dollars in tax revenues in the process.
Sadly, New River Gorge is the exception, rather than the rule when it comes to wildlife preservation and economic development in West Virginia, a fact that Elise would discover, ironically enough, when she went away to school at Virginia Tech. While she was getting her undergraduate degree in Blacksburg, a professor put her in contact with The Stanley Hiers Foundation and a man named Larry Gibson, a five foot nothing firebrand and Appalachian activist who had made it his life’s work to be a perpetual thorn in King Coal’s side so as to protect West Virginia from the predatory scourge of mountaintop removal mining.(1) Larry and his family had grown up on Kayford Mountain at the intersection of Boone, Kanawha and Raleigh County, WV back in the 1950s, before mountaintop removal was a thing that companies did and when the land around him had been relatively unmolested by massive, multi-ton machines looking for hard to reach seams of bituminous coal. After Larry’s father had his leg busted up in a coal mine collapse, medical bills began to pile up—bills that the coal companies weren’t obligated to pay for—and the family was bled dry, losing most everything they owned and grudgingly moving away from their ancestral home to the big city in Cleveland so his dad could find factory work. Fast forward to the mid-80s and Larry has returned to Kayford Mountain after retiring on disability from General Motors, only to find that the coal companies had bought up almost all the land around him for the sole purpose of blowing them the fuck up and picking at the newly exposed seams of coal like so many giant mechanical anteaters.
By the time Elise was sent out there in 1999, the coal companies had been busy dynamiting the ever loving hell out of large sections of land around Kayford Mountain for about 13 years, turning some of the most biodiverse land in the world into little more than a poorly maintained rock quarry. This land—land that had taken 480 million years to become what it was and once contained mountain ranges that would have rivaled the Himalayas—was being treated with the same respect and care one would afford a porta john. Through her time volunteering at Kayford Mountain and the days she spent observing Larry’s relentless and often reckless pursuit of environmental justice, the course of Elise’s life had been forever altered. While she would head west to get her JD and spend time advocating for a smorgasbord of progressive causes out in Colorado, Elise would be drawn back to her West Virginia Home, eventually taking a job as the Fundraising Director for the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, a nonprofit that Larry started in 2004 to expand his fight against Mountaintop Removal Mining from around his home on Kayford Mountain to all of Southern West Virginia. Four days after applying for the job, Larry Gibson died. He was 66 years old.
In the days leading up to his death, Larry underwent a surgical procedure to place a couple of stints in his ailing heart. The doctors told him to take a few days bed rest to let his body recuperate from the surgery, but Larry was so full of piss and vinegar that he ended up saying to hell with doctor’s orders and was busy doing work on his property days after the operation when he suffered the heart attack that would kill him. Seeing the bemused look on my face after being told the story, Elise simply shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know what possessed the doctor to think that man would sit around and do nothing for a couple days,” she told me.“That’s just not how West Virginia men work. They will keep on going until they literally drop dead.”
Given the fact that some of the roads we’d be traveling on would be too far off-the-beaten path for my GPS to find, I ended up taking the 20 minute ride to Kayford Mountain with Elise and Paul Corbit Brown, a humanitarian photographer who also serves as the chair and president of the board for the Keepers of the Mountain Foundation. As we drove through the West Virginian hinterlands, Elise would occasionally point out a coal processing plant or “tipple” that produces millions of gallons of coal slurry, which is the part-solid/part-liquid byproduct of the preparation processes that get coal ready for sale by washing it of excess sediment and crushing it into fairly uniform sized chunks. The only problem with all of this is the fact that the coal preparation process either utilizes or creates 19-known carcinogens and 24 chemicals linked to heart and lung damage, ensuring that the coal companies will be responsible for billions of gallons of this cancer-causing coal slurry with no way to un-slurrify it, as it were. Big coal thought long and hard on this problem and managed to come up with two environmentally sound ways of disposing of all this coal detritus without harming neighboring communities or local ecosystems…wait…did I say environmentally sound and harmless? I meant incredibly toxic and fatal.
In their infinite wisdom, the major coal companies adopted two separate, yet equally destructive methods for coal slurry disposal: injection and impoundment. Coal slurry injection is pretty much what it sounds like it is. The chunky, viscous coal slurry is mixed with massive quantities of water and then pumped, or “injected” into old abandoned mines deep inside the earth where no one can see it—and, so corporate logic has it, it doesn’t exist. The only problem with this is the fact that just because you shove this waste out of sight, doesn’t mean it won’t see the light of day sometime in the future. Big coal doesn’t take the time to hermetically seal every single crack and crevice inside these old abandoned mines, which means that some of this coal slurry will find a way to seep out of the mine itself and into the surrounding groundwater, which in turn pollutes the water supply for nearby communities who, for the most part, still use untreated well water. For the residents of these little hollows and towns, the results of this environmental negligence are deadly, with the water pollution caused by coal slurry seepage and overexposure to coal dust resulting in much higher mortality rates for a variety of cancers, even after controlling for things like smoking habits and socioeconomic variables.
The processes involved in coal slurry impoundment aren’t all that dissimilar than those used in slurry injection. The principle difference between the two is that, while injection pushes the waste underground, impoundments store billions of gallons of coal slurry and coal combustion waste through the construction of large earthen dams by using waste rock and clay to seal up naturally occurring basins and create a sort of man-made sludge lake. Just as with injection sites, coal slurry impoundments often allow their contents to soak through into the groundwater through cracks in the earthen dams, which are often shoddily constructed. A recent study conducted for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement found that only 25% of the field tests they conducted on the walls at impoundment sites meet with passing grades and that all seven of the sites they visited had structural deficiencies. Most of the time, these design issues manifest themselves insidiously, killing off communities by a million tiny carcinogenic cracks and leaks, but occasionally, impoundments have the ability to unleash destruction on a biblical scale, as was the case in 1972, when an impoundment dam busted wide open, sending 132 million gallons of coal slurry down towards the hollow of Buffalo Creek, with 15 and 20 foot sludge waves sweeping through the town, instantly killing 125 people, injuring about 1,000 more and leaving 4,000 West Virginians homeless.
Given the carelessness with which the coal companies have built these impoundments and injection sites and the frequency with which they fail, the surprising thing isn’t that tragedies like the Buffalo Creek Disaster have happened, but rather that they haven’t happened more often. However, in the absence of these sorts of headline grabbing catastrophes the folks who live in the hollows and towns adjacent to or downstream from these waste sites and who have been forced to spend their lives drinking water tainted by coal slurry have been dying the slow, unremarkable deaths that are reserved for the faceless and the shapeless and the voiceless. As it turns out, the logic of the coal companies has proven to be true insofar as it relates to the American people writ large. For the vast majority of us, Appalachia is out of sight and therefore out of mind, which means that King Coal can do pretty much whatever it is they want.
There’s not too much room to move about on Kayford Mountain. The clearing that unfurls before you when you reach the top is as thin as it is long, stretching out like some long abandoned country runway into the woods that lay on either side of the property. Walk in any direction and you’ll find yourself stepping on little shards of bituminous coal, the seams so thick and rich that they often lay exposed on the ground like the varicose veins of the earth. We end up parking right next to Larry Gibson’s old house on the mountain, a little cabin sitting a few feet off the ground with solar panels on the roof and piece of graffiti at the base of it that reads: We are the keepers of the mountains. Love them or leave them. Just Don’t Destroy Them. Further down on the property are a series of trailer homes and RVs that have been set up by members of Larry’s family who keep everything in order in his absence. As we were walking past them, one of Larry’s relatives came out from his front porch with a puppy in tow that skittered toward us with all the dexterity and enthusiasm his tiny month old body could muster. Elise told him that she was just giving another tour of the place, at which point the man proceeded to point out at some distant ridge on the horizon and tell us a story about some sort of happening that went on over there 40 some odd years ago. I really wish I could tell you more about his story, but—truth be told —I could barely understand every other word that came out of his mouth. This man’s Appalachian accent was so thick and his sentences were so chock full of local verbiage and vocabulary that I found myself on more than one occasion just smiling and nodding, completely ignorant of what he was talking about, but not wanting to look like an asshole. Regardless of my ability to comprehend whatever the hell it was he was saying, the guy was personable as could be, especially considering I was just some random ass stranger he didn’t know from Adam that had decided to show up on his property.
After he had finished up his story, Elise and Paul led me and 4 other folks who were getting a tour of the place down a trail to take a look at what some of Larry’s corporate neighbors had done with the surrounding property. While we were walking, Elise informed us we were indeed in the West Virginia Wilderness and, while most of the animals native to the region were fairly harmless, folks have come across copperheads, timber rattlesnakes and even the odd black bear on the property. As a precautionary measure, she did something called a “whoopie tail dance,” which was a hand-me-down piece of local folklore that had it that people could scare away any snakes by jumping up and down on one foot and turning around in a circle while chanting, “whoopie tail, whoopie tail, whoopie tail.” It may sound silly, but like most legends and old wives tales, there’s a bit of truth to the whoopie tail dance insofar as jumping up and down on the ground and screaming at the top of your lungs is a pretty good way to let any nearby critters know that you’re coming and that they should probably get out the way.
Elise had told me to wear hiking boots if I had them, leading me to assume that we were going to be walking some ways before we got to where we were going and leaving me slightly unprepared for just how close coal companies were to Kayford Mountain. After we had been hiking for about 5 minutes, Elise stopped us all at a little ridge that led out of the woods on the Gibson’s property and gave us a little spiel on US trespassing laws and whether or not we were about to break some of them. I had assumed that, since we had yet to walk more than a quarter mile, there would be a wooded valley of some kind on the other side of ridge. But, as I walked further and my view became less and less obstructed by the switchgrass in front of me, the tops of these ashen plateaus began to show themselves, every step exposing just that much more sooty bedrock until everything on the immediate horizon was the color of corpsed flesh. In the verdant peaks of the unmolested mountains behind it, you can see what it once was and should be, but is no longer. It’s woods and templed hills have been obliterated by a thousand ammonium nitrated blasts—their trees and topsoil fit only to be scooped up in the mouth of a dragline excavator and dropped over the mountain’s edge on top of some unassuming creek or stream. Some of the locals have taken to calling this particular mountaintop removal site “Hell’s Gate”, but I have to respectfully disagree. Where would the Acheron run in this Hell’s Gate? Where would the Styx and the Lethe? How can you have a hell in a place like this, where there is nothing left to inhabit it? There was no life on the surface of that erstwhile mountain; only a space where life had been.
One ridge over, where active mining had ceased and overgrown dump trucks no longer rolled across its surface like maggots on carrion, the coal companies had performed what they called “land reclamation.” After pressure from environmental groups, the US government finally passed a law in the 1970s requiring that coal companies essentially leave their mining sites the way that they found them, an impossible task when you mine mountains by blowing them to smithereens. Unsurprisingly, coal companies have been grossly negligent when it comes to restoring mountaintop removal land, on average spending 0.6% of their revenue on fixing up the land they just demolished and generally treating the Appalachian wilderness like a giant Chia Pet through hydroseeding, a process that involves spraying a chemical mixture of fertilizer, cellulose mulch and nonnative grass seeds onto the exposed bedrock of their decapitated mountain, where it sticks in defiance of the laws of nature due to the fact that there ain’t a plant on this damned planet that enjoys setting up shop on a giant slab of shale.
Once we had gotten our fill of the desolation at Hell’s Gate, Paul and Elise led us back through the narrow isthmus of greenery on top of Kayford towards the north end of the property, where we could see what was left of one of Larry’s ancestral cemeteries. We could only see it because there was a good mile or two between the cemetery and the Gibson property and the land all around the family cemetery had been bought up and torn down by the Catenary Coal Company, making the burial ground all but inaccessible to those wishing to pay their respects, and we could only see part of it because, six years back, a bulldozer had pushed about half the cemetery over the edge of the man-made cliff it was sitting on. So much, I suppose, for sleeping well after life’s fitful fever if you happen to have the misfortune of being interred side by side with a seam of coal.
We started walking back to our cars pretty soon after we arrived at the overlook across from the cemetery, mainly because there’s only so long you can stand atop a ridge and stare at a desolate dozer-grooved wasteland before an intractable depression sets in. As we were walking, Elise said something that made everything that I had seen that day—and most everything I had come to know about West Virginia—somehow make sense. We were talking about how it could be that a state that possessed such an abundance of natural resources could beget a population that was so terribly poor, and she explained all this by saying that West Virginia was essentially created as and has always been a resource colony for the rest of the country. The only problem was that after more than a century of intensive coal mining, West Virginia’s chief resource dwindling.
So, what happens next? Well, put bluntly, Appalachian coal is going to die off. Whether or not its death is of the mercifully quick or long and drawn out variety depends on a number of different factors—foremost among them, how quickly the state’s natural gas industry balloons—but rest assured that it will happen in the next 50 years or so. The peak year for coal production in West Virginia was way back in 1947, and despite tonnage numbers that rose for much of the latter half of the 20th century, production has dropped off significantly over the past decade. At the same time production was slowing down, technological advances allowed mine owners to become less and less reliant on human labor in their operations, causing an exodus of mining jobs that will never come back. In 1947, West Virginia coal mines utilized 116,271 miners to extract 173.7 million tons of coal. In 2012, it took 21,807 miners to dig up 129.5 million tons of coal, which was enough to represent just 12.7% of the nation’s coal production.
The Energy Information Administration has long touted the idea that the US still has a 200 year supply of coal left in the tank, estimating that there are still 483 billion tons left in America’s “Demonstrated Reserve Base,” a measurement that calculates how much coal we believe could be mined at any given time. Of that 483 billion tons of coal, a little under 31.5 billion is located in West Virginia, meaning that if we were to take last year’s haul of 129.5 million tons of coal and use that as the new average in the state for the future, the state of West Virginia could conceivably have 243 more years of coal mining ahead of it. With that being said, all of the numbers I just listed out are pretty much meaningless because those 31.5 billion tons of coal can only be harvested if we have the technical abilities to reach them, if private businesses are willing to mine for them and if the EPA will let them. With all the talk of Obama’s War on Coal,(2) you might understandably think that EPA regulations would be responsible for coal’s undoing, but that hasn’t really been the case. Even after you factor in environmental restrictions, property rights issues, land use conflicts and the technical limitations of today’s mining technology, the country can still consider more than half of its coal reserves as being “recoverable”.
No, there’s actually a good chance that mortal wound to the coal mining industry will be self-inflicted, as coal’s increasingly swift decline in profitability will lead companies to invest in other energy sources like natural gas and oil, or cut and run west of the Mississippi where the coal is lower quality, but much more plentiful. After 150 years of mining, the seams of coal in West Virginia are becoming thinner and harder to reach, meaning that as time progresses, coal companies will have to expend more energy and capital to retrieve less coal. Studies conducted by the United States Geological Survey have found that a mere 10% of the coal in the entire Central Appalachian Basin—roughly 976 million tons—is “economically recoverable”, meaning that a private company could turn a profit or break even by mining just 10% of existing Central Appalachian coal reserves.
Of course, that 976 million ton number isn’t set in stone and anything from the relaxing of environmental regulations and the creation of new mining technology to the acquisition of more privately owned land and a change in the market value of coal could increase the amount of economically recoverable coal in West Virginia, but not by enough to make a meaningful difference in the long haul. Coal in Appalachia is dying and it will only survive as long as the market lets it, because the second those coal seams get so deep and so thin that you can’t make any money off of ’em, those coal companies and the few jobs they were still providing will be gone. The things that will stay are all around Kayford Mountain: hundreds of butchered mountaintops patched over with grass that was sprayed on with a hose; millions of tons of topsoil and bedrock suffocating the life from brooks and streams that provided water and life to millions; the arsenic, selenium and lead that sits in the groundwater and comes out of taps looking like chunky chicken stock; skin rashes, cancers, renal failures, these things aren’t going anywhere. And in the end, there is but one question left.
What happens to a resource colony when the resources are all gone?
(1) For the purposes of this article, I’m only going over the sort of bare bones details of Larry’s life to provide a little background about Kayford Mountain and the progression of Mountain Top Removal mining in Southern West Virginia, but he truly was a remarkable man who deserves more than just a cursory glossing over. There are plenty of excellent portraits of Larry Gibson already extant, but I would highly recommend picking up the book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco that contains some great insight from Larry on the iron fisted grasp that the coal companies have over residents of Southern West Virginia. The book also has an incredible section looking at the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which I touched on briefly in my earlier article, A Nation With No Ears: The History & Legacy of Little Bighorn. You know what…just buy the damn book.
(2) For the record, coal mining employment increased by 1,500 jobs (7.4%) during President Obama’s 1st term. If that’s a war on coal, then it’s a very poorly executed one.