The battle for W. Va's mountains

Destruction: A new strip mining method lays bare Appalachian mountaintops and stirs bitter passions in the coal fields.

October 03, 1999|By Peter Slavin

BIG COAL RIVER VALLEY ,W. VA — BIG COAL River Valley, W. Va. -- Standing in the kitchen of his family's home in their beautiful and tranquil hollow, Jim Wills told me of a nightmare he had as a child, one that still baffles him.

Forty years later, it seems a mysterious omen of what was to come. In his sleep, young Jim saw a towering piece of earth-moving equipment astride the mountaintop near his home like some giant science-fiction robot menacing the valley below.

Wills' dream has come to pass, though so far his hollow has been spared. To get at the coal, the mountains of southern West Virginia are being blown up and dumped into the surrounding valleys, burying the creeks. Called mountaintop removal, an apt name, it's the latest, most rapid, ruthless, and efficient form of strip mining and accounts for an ever-growing share of West Virginia coal production.

The federal Clean Air Act put a premium on low-sulfur coal because it burns relatively cleanly, and these mountains are full of it. Mountaintop removal operations are "like a gold mine," one miner told me.

From a small plane I have seen a dozen or so flattened mountaintops within a 25-mile radius of the town of Beckley (most mountaintop mining operations are closed to the media.) Less ambitious mountaintop mining is also under- way in a few other states.

Mountaintop mining is done on a stupendous scale. First, the mountain is logged for good timber and the rest of the forest leveled. Then, blasting loosens the rocks, and a machine similar to a crane with a base the size of a nine-story hotel is turned loose to scoop up the rubble. Known as a dragline, this is Jim Wills' nightmare come to life. Every minute its bucket can pick up the equivalent of five tractor-trailer loads of dirt and rock and drop it a football field away. Costing as much as $50 million and assembled atop a mountain -- a process that takes 12 to 18 months with parts delivered in 300 truckloads -- a dragline almost never quits, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"They cost so much, you've got to use them around the clock," says an industry official.

A mountain does not stand a chance. One after another, the seams of coal, each running through the mountain like a black ribbon, are fully exposed to daylight and scooped out.

Standing on a dirt road high in the hills across from Montcoal Mountain, where a hydraulic shovel -- smaller than a dragline, but still huge and voracious -- has been on the offensive, I saw what is left of that mountain. Sections had disappeared, lowering the terrain hundreds of feet, and the removal site -- a bruised, barren semicircular landscape stretching perhaps four miles -- had been sliced into huge terraced chunks. The black seams had been left naked, and great piles of coal were awaiting transfer to an underground conveyor belt four miles long.

Montcoal Mountain -- where the people on Big Coal River used to hunt squirrel and bear, pick berries, harvest ramp onions and ginseng, and go fourwheeling -- is being taken down. "Almost Heaven, West Virginia," John Denver's hymn to the state, has prompted a sardonic new bumper sticker: "Almost Level, West Virginia."

The coal companies "reclaim" the land, usually planting a non-native grass and locust and pine trees, which local people consider a miserable substitute for what had been there: the towering hardwood trees of the Appalachian forest. The industry labels such areas "wildlife habitats," a post-mining land use not permitted by law, which calls for either restoring the land to its natural state or real development.

The companies point to developments such as shopping malls, golf courses, prisons, factories and schools that have risen on some flattened terrain. But, environmentalists say, considering the vast tracts of land affected, these uses are few and far between. And in the remote and sparsely settled backcountry, most such projects make no sense. Besides, people here are deeply attached to these mountains. Some families have lived in and roamed them since the 1700s, for seven generations or more.

The great battle

Blair Mountain in Logan County has sparked the great battle over mountaintop removal. The battle is being waged in federal court, where a handful of families and environmentalists sued on environmental grounds to block Arch Coal's bid to expand its mammoth operation. The company, which had already cut a six-mile swath across the mountaintop, had asked the state for a permit to let it mine another five square miles -- yes, five square miles -- in an area centering on Pigeon Roost Hollow.

The plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction after the judge flew over the mountain to see things for himself. The injunction could delay a permit for the new mine for at least two years and is forcing Arch Coal and its contractors to lay off about 350 employees, most of the workers at Blair.

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