(Photo: "Stand Up and Join My Fight"/YouTube)

takepart features

Breaking Big Coal's Stranglehold

Can a new generation of activists persuade West Virginians to turn their backs on the mining companies?

Josh Dean is a Brooklyn, N.Y.–based writer who contributes regularly to Outside, Popular Science, GQ, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He is also the author of Show Dog.

Junior Walk kicks at the dirt atop Kayford Mountain, his left boot strangled with electrical tape so the sole doesn’t flap around when he walks. Behind him is the last surviving patch of intact forest on the mountain, 2,890 feet above sea level, in a rugged crook where Kanawha, Fayette, and Raleigh counties all come together. To get here, you exit the interstate highway at Cabin Creek, birthplace of basketball great Jerry West, and tuck into a holler, past a vestigial clump of coal camp houses (still occupied), past some Baptist churches, past a number of trailer homes, past several turnoffs marked with signs that warn of coal mines beyond. The paved road turns to dirt and gets more rutted as you climb, until you reach a verdant, 50-acre patch of Appalachian forest on a mountain the Gibson family has occupied in some capacity since the 1700s.

Today, the shady island that remains is mostly a summer place, with trailers and hand-built cabins dotting the ridge almost right up to the property line. “From here on is coal company land," says Walk, 24, as he leads us through some bushes to the top of a berm.

Past the berm, the land falls away. Where a thriving forest once stood is now an open pit of dirt and rock, and staring into it you can taste the grit in your mouth.

So vast is the destruction that it’s hard to appreciate the scale until Walk points out a dump truck rumbling across the dirt plain a few hundred yards below us: It looks like a Tonka toy. “That’s the size of a two-story house,” he says, and it can carry 200 tons of earth. He would know. He used to work security at a mine just like this one.

To the north and the east of us is a section of Kayford Mountain that’s been mined out, now covered in a thin layer of gravel and grass, with some shrubs—the mining company’s effort at “reclamation,” or restoring the mountaintop after having removed everything that was originally there. It looks like an adolescent Chia Pet.

Since 1986, Kayford Mountain has been an active mountaintop removal (MTR) mine—stripped of its trees and soil as coal mining companies dug and carved and blasted away at it right down to its rock core, so they could tap and empty the coal seams underneath, leaving only the 50 acres owned by Larry Gibson, who went to his grave nearly two years ago rejecting offers to sell his ancestral land. Gibson became an icon for antimining activists and a mentor to local insurgents like Junior Walk, who as a member of the Coal River Mountain Watch is one of the few natives of coal country who dares suggest that the industry’s ravages of the land and their communities are not worth the jobs it provides.

These vast, blunt-force mines allow operators to remove more coal with less manpower, but in the process of that they denude the landscape while producing massive amounts of waste. The earth that’s still being blasted away is dumped into the hollow between Kayford and a neighboring peak. That “valley fill” reconstructs the topography, erasing streams, and increases the risk of floods. In the MTR era, more than 1,000 miles of streams and creeks have been buried, under permit, in Central Appalachia—a total distance longer than the Ohio River. At the foot of Kayford, to the south, lies Dorothy, a tiny village that flooded in 2001, almost certainly because of the runoff from the barren slopes that loom above it.

A West Virginia slurry pond. (Photo: Coal River Mountain Watch)

Walk and his fellow activists are fighting to save the few surviving forests around their home watershed, but he has other worries too—in particular, the two massive slurry (or sludge) ponds built in the Coal River Valley to hold back the toxic mess that’s left behind after coal stripped from mountains like Kayford is conditioned, or “prepped,” for burning in power plants, often hundreds of miles away. In 1972, one hundred thirty-two million gallons of sludge broke through a faulty dam and roared into Logan County’s Buffalo Creek Hollow in a 30-foot-high wave, destroying seven towns, killing 125 people, and leaving nearly 4,000 homeless—less than a week after the dam was declared “satisfactory” by a federal mine inspector. In February of this year, more than 100,000 gallons of sludge leaked from a prep plant in Kanawha County, turning Fields Creek an oily black color for days. Today’s slurry ponds are much larger than the one at Buffalo Creek. The one at Marsh Fork holds nearly 3 billion gallons behind one of the largest earthen dams in the world.

Before coal slurry was stored away in huge ponds it was pumped into abandoned mines. That’s what poisoned the Walk family’s well, when Walk was a child, turning the water that the family drank from and bathed in bloodred. The pollutant, Walk says, was MCHM, the chemical that spilled into the Elk River in Charleston in January, shutting down the water supply for up to 300,000 people across nine counties. That the affected area was so widespread, and the number of affected homes so great, was itself a function of coal mining: Over the last few decades, the majority of southern West Virginia residents have converted from wells to city water because of groundwater pollution caused by mining.

Residents of coal areas like Boone County, where researchers went door-to-door collecting health data in 2011, were found to be twice as likely to get cancer as people who didn’t live in mining areas. They also had higher rates of mortality, birth defects, and heart and lung disease. In 2010, twenty-nine miners were killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, a 10-minute drive up the valley from Dorothy, just four years after 12 were killed at the Sago Mine. Those were the two worst mine disasters in West Virginia since the death of 78 at the Consolidation Coal mine near Farmington in 1968. West Virginia ranks 49th in the nation in per capita income, 47th in percentage of college graduates, 41st in infant mortality, and 49th in life expectancy. It is dead last in drug-overdose mortality. The largest employer is Walmart.

Well water contaminated with the
chemical MCHM. (Photo: Vivian Stockman/OVEC)

Junior Walk knows all this. He hates valley fill, hates MTR, hates prep plants, hates everything about coal mining. The accumulated vitriol has hardened him into a fierce environmental activist, and though the long hair and scraggly beard might indicate as much, the camo hunting vest and shitkicker boots that he’s wearing on this warm April morning confuse the stereotype. Walk smokes and hunts and drives a truck. He is a proud West Virginian, no different from his neighbors except for one thing: He woke up to the realities of coal.

For that reason, he is an outcast in Eunice, his own hometown, and in every other community in the valley, where residents proudly display election-style signs on their front lawns with phrases like “Friends of Coal” and “If you don’t like coal, don’t use electricity.” Convenience stores sell T-shirts with “COAL” across the front in six-inch letters (available in black and pink), and many cars have special-issue black license plates bearing the slogan “Coal Keeps the Lights On!”

Walk says his picture hangs on the wall of mine security booths and that he gets death threats. Twice, the brake lines on his truck have been cut. Because Walk’s father worked in a coal prep plant, he had no choice but to kick his son out when he went public as an activist. It all only hardened Walk's resolve.

“For the most part, people are going to stay quiet, and that’s just how it is,” Walk says as we rumble down the rutted goat trail of a back road that leads from the summit of Kayford Mountain down into the Coal River Valley.

You’d be forgiven for wondering: What’s the matter with West Virginia?

I often wonder myself, and I used to live there. I spent nearly half my youth in Morgantown, in the north, and the balance of it just across the border in Western Maryland, which is basically the same Appalachian terrain separated only by some lines on the map. I can tell you the easy answer: Nothing. In one important way, West Virginians aren’t so different from the Brooklynites I live among now, or the rest of America for that matter, in that they vote with their checkbooks. Although just 3.5 percent of West Virginia’s population is employed by the coal industry (according to the nonpartisan West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy), the industry makes up 18.4 percent of the state’s GDP, and the taxes it pays provide a large chunk of the state budget. In local jurisdictions, which get 75 percent of those taxes, coal pays for schools, police, and other essential services. So when you talk about West Virginia’s terrible standing in the state rankings it’s helpful to have perspective. Without coal, it’s not outlandish to think, my home state would be 50th across the board.

This is what it looks like when you blow the top off a mountain. (Photo: Jerry Whaley/Getty Images)

Yet acceptance of the accumulated horrors of living with coal mines in your backyard is difficult to fathom, especially when you consider that the companies that own these mines are siphoning nearly all of the profits out of state. They’ve invested little in job retraining, or economic development, or drug and alcohol treatment, or battered women’s shelters, or other things that might ameliorate the societal ills caused by the contraction of their industry, and they only barely comply with the few environmental regulations that are enforced.

In the weeks after the Elk River spill, an essay went around online suggesting that West Virginians’ blind devotion to coal indicates a cult mentality has set in. The piece sparked outrage—it reinforced what locals thought about outsiders, that they’re judgmental pedants—but also a smart retort from the Charleston-based novelist Denise Giardina. West Virginia isn’t a cult, Giardina wrote. It’s a colony.

She’s not the only one suggesting as much. “There really is a ruling class, and most of them don’t live here,” says Rick Wilson, who works in Charleston for the nonprofit American Friends Service Committee. (Wilson’s organization was founded by the Quakers and dispatched to West Virginia in 1922 to work on child nutrition in coal mining areas. “I’m sad to say that’s an issue we’re still working on,” he tells me.) Offshore corporations extract the state’s resources, using the indigenous population to undertake the difficult and dangerous work, and dispose of the waste locally while removing the profits. The report from the West Virginia Office Center of Budget & Policy showed that in coal country, the majority of private land is in a small number of corporate hands—and that none of the 10 largest landholders is based in the state.

Since the late 19th century, the people of West Virginia have tried everything from the ballot box to civil disobedience to armed rebellion to keep the coal industry at bay. Nothing has worked.

— Denise Giardina, novelist

To protect those interests, the operators maintain a puppet regime that is dependent on their funding and support for survival. The law firms that do the bidding of the corporations, Wilson says, are like “the colonial viceroys administering the colony.” They pursue friendly legislation, fight regulation, and—especially as the industry has declined—wage a highly effective PR war that poses a fictional us (West Virginians)–against–them (the federal government and environmentalists) battle that appeals to the state’s historical distrust of outsiders. As a result, most of the population feels impotent and—lacking alternatives—even thankful for the backbreaking work, while those who resist are squashed.

“Since the late 19th century, the people of West Virginia have tried everything from the ballot box to civil disobedience to armed rebellion to keep the coal industry at bay,” Giardina wrote. “Nothing has worked.”

In 1948, there were 125,000 coal miners in West Virginia, out of a population of 2 million. Theirs were union jobs, and good ones, won following the “mine wars” over the right to organize, which culminated in 1921 with the Battle of Blair Mountain, when an estimated 10,000 armed miners marched on a fortified mountain held by 3,000 coal company men and their private foot soldiers, and reinforced by the U.S. Army, which President Warren G. Harding called in to defend the company side. It is still the largest armed civil insurrection since the Civil War and stands as the only time the U.S. government mobilized aircraft and chemical weapons for use against its own citizens.

Once the United Mine Workers of America organized the labor in the industry, conditions, safety, and pay for miners all improved. Those who worked in the mines generally prospered financially, if not physically, and were glad for the work. I want to meet some of the men who remembered the good old days of coal, so I arrange to see Jerry Ellison and Herb Harrell, both union men, both retired. We meet in a Bible study room at Lookout Baptist Church in Fayette County, just off Route 60, where pretty much every turn once led to a mine or a coal camp, nearly all of them long since boarded up or torn down. Ellison and Harrell, with some union brethren, built the tin-sided building themselves with funds raised by the congregation and heavy equipment borrowed from Pittston Coal.

The men are happily retired, with full pensions—one of the major victories of the union’s collective bargaining. They look healthy and dress well; Ellison arrives in a Lexus. I don't ask about the particulars of their retirement benefits, but pensions are often tied to the health of the companies providing them. Two years ago, Patriot Coal, which was spun out of some of Peabody Energy’s failing assets, declared bankruptcy in an attempt to shed the liabilities associated with benefits for thousands of retired West Virginia miners. UMWA had to file suit to force a settlement. This happens a lot: The last major strike, in 1989–90, was over Pittston’s decision to end health insurance for retirees (both Ellison and Harrell took part). The strike lasted 10 months, and Pittston never recovered. The company that bought up its remnants, Massey Energy, spent the ensuing years breaking up the unions.

Ellison and Harrell seem to have no particular love for the coal companies. Whether or not a mine was worth operating, Ellison tells me, had to do with the price of coal and the ability of a company to secure tax credits. “After trying to figure out these coal companies all my life, they weren’t interested in making a profit,” he says. “They were interested in making a killing. If they couldn’t make a killing, they wouldn’t do it.”

Both men are sad about the state of things. “The coal business is terrible here,” Ellison continues. Mining has always been “an up-and-down thing,” Harrell adds, but today there’s little job security. His nephews work in the mines but know “the next morning they go to work they may be getting a pink slip.” Without unions there are no health benefits or job retraining. “Now when the guys get laid off their insurance is gone and their income is gone.”

Kayford Mountain, 2007–2012

The scene atop Kayford is fresh in my mind, so I raise the issue of mountaintop removal. The swiftness and conviction of Ellison's reply surprises me. “That’s the focus of all the environmentalists,” he says. “You’ll hear all this stuff in the media—‘They’re burying streams’ and all that stuff—that’s not true.”

Neither of the men believes that MTR operations have had a negative effect on the environment. “And that’s where I worked the last 10 years,” Ellison says, when he switched from underground work to a job as mine inspector. “As a hunter, it’s helped.” What does he mean by that? “When these guys finish they have to reclaim that, and there’s grass planted and trees and shrubs and stuff planted that the game lives off of, and they thrive.”

Had they really never seen pollution resulting from a mine?

Again, Harrell shakes his head. “No. They make sediment ponds to catch it,” he says. “You might have one that will break every once in a while and a little bit of muddy water run down into a creek or something. But no, the mountaintop strip that I did work at down in Hobet, they did an excellent job. It was beautiful once they got finished, compared to just an old mountain standing there.” He pauses. “The only reason they catch so much flak is because they’re right there in your face. I’m sure you’ve flown over these, and they stick out like a sore thumb. But you don’t realize that you also fly over places that have already been reclaimed, and you don’t even know it. There’s airports there or golf courses.”

“When it’s being mined, it’s nothing but rocks and dust and it does look terrible,” Ellison agrees. “But it don’t stay that way.” He is proud of what he did, and what the state has given to the nation—its electricity. “If we can get the EPA off the backs of the coal industry here, it will come back.”

Most analysts point to other factors in coal’s decline. The thickest and easiest-to-reach seams in Appalachia have been mined out. That’s what precipitated MTR mines in the first place and with it a reduction in employment. The coal that remains is too shallow to reach via tunnels. So you just blast off the top of the mountain. That’s a far less labor-intensive process than mining; the house-size machines that tear away mountainsides require typically only one guy to drive.

“The real war on coal happened in the 1980s,” says AFSC’s Rick Wilson. That’s when automation took over. Profits rose along with production (accelerating the depletion of the resource and the death of the industry), but employment fell. When Ellison and Harrell started working, they say, their union local, District 29, had 23,000 miners; today, with natural gas ascendant and coal diminishing, there are only 73,000 in the entire country. The Energy Information Administration estimates that by 2015 coal production in southern Appalachia could fall 30 percent from 2009 levels. Whatever growth remains is happening out West, in the mines of Wyoming’s Copper River Basin, most of which are open pits.

As a result, says Evan Hansen, an environmental consultant, coal companies have undertaken “a big media campaign to dig in their heels and protect themselves from the inevitable, which is that it’s a dying industry.”

The strategy is to suggest that external factors are to blame. Regulation is big coal’s bogeyman, and as President Obama has pushed a transition from coal to gas-burning power plants to take advantage of the less carbon-intensive energy source, the EPA has become the primary target of local vitriol.

“The industry has been successful in declaring a war on coal and blaming it all on the president and the EPA,” says Wilson. It’s had plenty of willing eunuchs among local politicians: Just two days before the Elk River spill went public, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin warned that he would “never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal.” During the reign of Randy Huffman as head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, more than 10,000 violations of the Clean Water Act have been reported to the agency by mining companies; not one has been cited. When he was governor of West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin installed Huffman, named a coal company executive the state’s head of mine safety, sued the EPA to reverse new Clean Water Act guidelines (the case is ongoing; if successful, it could effectively kill oversight of MTR mines), and fired a bullet into a copy of a cap-and-trade bill in a campaign commercial. In 2009, he named coal the official state rock. (He also reported about $3 million in earnings between 2009 and 2012 from a coal brokerage he once ran.)

Coal protesters in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Coal River Mountain Watch)

Paul Rakes grew up in the coal camps of Fayette County and worked 20 years underground before leaving the industry, eventually becoming a history professor at West Virginia University Institute of Technology. He says blaming the EPA is just the new version of an old tactic. In 1969, following the Farmington mine disaster, Washington passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which set standards, created an inspection process, and guaranteed miners certain rights. When the coal industry experienced a decline in the following decade, Rakes says, “the argument was that all these new regulations are killing us. They will always find something else to blame for what is a cycle of pretty much all resource industries or extraction industries. [Coal has] dropped off now because of bad management and flooding the market and probably some overall economic things as well, but we have to blame it on somebody so we’ll blame it on the environmentalists.” 

So what is a guy like Junior Walk to do? He’s one of the few environmentalists who doesn’t come from out of state. “They just alienate and offend people,” says Rick Wilson of the transplants. 

Rakes calls them “back-to-the-landers” and says that these expatriate environmentalists seem to “see themselves on a higher evolutionary order than the average West Virginian.” That same perception “on the part of natives,” he says, is widely held. And it’s not helping the cause.

Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a native of West Virginia whose brother still works as a miner, warns green groups to tread carefully. “We have to figure out how to bring this section of the population”—meaning residents of rural mining areas—“along with the goals that we’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “If we don’t figure out how to do that, the thing that will get blamed for this economic depression is going to be climate policy.”

Junior Walk at a protest. (Photo: Junior Walk/Facebook)

I thought that one person who might be able to shed some light on “how to do that” would be the woman who has successfully organized a group of conservative ranchers in Nebraska to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, so far with impressive results: Its future is in doubt, even though most energy analysts considered Keystone a shoo-in for approval in the summer of 2011, when the Vermont-based environmental group 350.org joined forces with locals. So I call Jane Kleeb.

“The blaming of coal, making coal sound like the villain—that’s not going to work,” Kleeb tells me. “That industry made that area strong and put people’s kids through college. So when you attack coal, you attack those families.” Kleeb used Nebraska’s stubborn traditional culture to her advantage. “We were able to tell people that we should never let big corporations come in and tell us what to do with our land and water.” Kleeb says that if she were trying to organize families in West Virginia, she would tell them to take this tack: "It’s true that this is our economic engine, but our land and water are polluted. How do we let them do that without accountability?"

This is a more nuanced version of something Junior Walk told me. “People have to realize they’ve been used for the last 150 years,” he'd said. “Their work and their health have been exploited to make sure the rest of this country can live with electricity, and we’re paying the cost of that.” Locals might not want to be told they’re victims; Kleeb seems to be recommending that the focus be on what is theirs, not on what they are.

Even from Nebraska, Kleeb is aware that a transition is under way in Appalachia, whether or not the locals see it yet, and environmentalists and other concerned parties need to not just point out the negatives of coal but also offer alternatives: “Nobody wants to be told that the thing they did their entire life, the thing their grandfathers did, is bad. At the same time, you have to have the conversation about reality—people are dying of cancer, and their water is polluted. You have to show people that we can’t keep turning our backs on that.” She pauses. “It’s a tough battle, but it’s gotta be waged.”

“People like to think of this in terms of an action movie, with good guys and bad guys. Get rid of the bad guys, and things are great,” Rick Wilson says. “The coal industry’s movie is ‘Get rid of the president and the EPA, and everything will be OK in West Virginia.’ Horseshit. The other side is ‘Stop coal, and it’s all OK.’ Nope. Then taxes go away.” He sighs. “It’s more of a Greek tragedy than an action movie.”

What West Virginia needs to do, if it’s going to find a way out of this mess—golden handcuffed to a dying industry—is reinvent itself. Someone is going to have to present some alternatives.

This was the idea behind “A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State,” a conference held in Charleston last summer. Jeremy Richardson organized the event, inspired by similar initiatives across the border in Kentucky, where even Republican politicians have embraced the idea of discussing alternatives to coal. Richardson focuses on climate change for the UCS, so the underlying motive of his work in West Virginia is to encourage a move away from coal because it’s a leading driver of greenhouse gas emissions. But he’s also a native, and he knows that this isn’t as simple as just closing the mines. Coal is critical to his home state’s economy and will be for some time. “But the transition is happening whether we like it or not,” he tells me. “Ignoring facts doesn’t make them go away.”

Richardson and the UCS have lobbied hard for the West Virginia Legislature to do what North Dakota has done in the wake of its recent oil boom—to allocate a percentage of the severance taxes paid by coal and natural gas companies to create a Future Fund that would fund economic development, education, and job training. For once, the legislature listened, and the measure passed in March—with predictable limitations. The deposits can be halted, for instance, if there’s a budget deficit (and in West Virginia, there often is). Still, it’s a start.

When you ask people around West Virginia about alternatives, about what a life after coal could mean, you tend to hear one answer first: tourism. White-water rafting has been a success, and Adventures on the Gorge, based in Fayetteville, attracts rafters, campers, and other people from all over the world to the New River Gorge.

Fayetteville is one of the state’s few dying coal towns to have been reborn thanks to a new industry. It has a main street of renovated storefronts and legitimately good restaurants. It is in one of them that I meet Woody Duba, general manager of the Beaver Coal Company. Duba was born in the coal camps of Logan County and worked 17 years in the mines before leaving in 1992 to become general manager of Beaver Coal in Beckley, which despite its name has never mined an ounce of the stuff; it’s a landholder, founded in the late 19th century by an investment group that included J.P. Morgan.

Anyone who’s driven on the highway through Beckley has passed Beaver’s holdings, which at their World War II peak produced 7 million tons of coal in a single year. Today those lands still have some mines, as well as a few gas wells, some timber, and increasingly a host of development projects, including schools, medical facilities, office parks, and tourist attractions.

Duba is just the sixth G.M. in the 115-year history of Beaver Coal, and his tenure represents a story that is West Virginia in microcosm. “Right after I came in I realized that coal has a short life on our property,” he says, sipping a bottle of Corona. “Within 15 or 20 years it will be gone.” Duba and his wife met in high school, back when coal country was thriving. Logan County had car lots and a hospital. They’re gone now. It’s even worse in McDowell County, where he worked for a time. “Today it’s ghost towns,” Duba says. “Drugs run rampant, and there’s lower per capita income than anywhere imaginable. It’s terrible. People are just hanging on, and everything’s abandoned.

“When coal moves out there’s nothing left,” Duba continues. If people want to stay—because that’s a completely rational impulse, to want to stay in a place you love—what should they do? “That’s the puzzle I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” he answers.

Duba says he’s pretty much ready to retire but has decided to stay on for five years to help redirect his company, and to help it play a role in a transition for the region. One thing Duba’s done on the company's land, in addition to giving away tracts for development of medical, academic, and small business centers, is build attractions. He’s got high-end cabins, an adventure park, and part of an ATV trail network that was inspired by one of West Virginia’s few other tourism success stories, the Hatfield-McCoy trail system—more than 700 miles of trails across 500,000-plus acres of private property (most of them under free license from coal, gas, and timber companies) that has spawned a network of small businesses to support it. One popular campground is owned by a former coal miner. 

If we can get the EPA off the backs of the coal industry here, it will come back.

— Jerry Ellison, retired coal miner

The same interstates that crisscross West Virginia and enabled the New River Gorge to become a national destination could also spur manufacturing. Natural gas production will help offset loss of tax revenue, if not jobs, but other resources have potential. A 2010 report from the environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies noted a “wealth of low-carbon clean energy resources that can be developed to provide new sources of jobs and tax revenues,” including wind, solar, low-impact hydro, and sustainable biomass.

The point of the Future Fund is to begin developing these alternatives with cash from coal and natural gas.  

Dave Arnold, who founded Adventures on the Gorge, has built one of the country’s largest adventure outfitters on the ashes of the coal industry. Arnold’s original landlord made most of his money leasing property for mines; today, one of his main investors has extensive coal holdings, and the company offers zip lining on a reclaimed strip mine.

Recently, an NPR producer from Ohio called to ask Arnold what West Virginia would be like without coal. That’s a silly idea, Arnold told him. “ 'Where would Ohio be without corn? Where would L.A. be without film?’ ” 

The answer to those questions is fairly obvious. Los Angeles has world-class universities and the busiest port on the West Coast. Ohio is still a major manufacturing hub. Nearly half of West Virginia’s economy is chemical production, and the fastest-growing industry is natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale—neither seems that different from coal in terms of its potential to damage the state and its inhabitants. What West Virginia needs more of is high-paying jobs, but those tend to require high levels of education, and the state ranks 49th in percentage of people over 24 with a college degree.

Far western Maryland, where I was born and lived until fifth grade, is also coal country—or was, because usable seams there ran out in the first half of the 20th century. Those mines gave rise to factories that subsequently faded away themselves, and over the past few decades I’ve watched the area die the slow death that happens to places that are dependent on a single industry. When I was a kid, there were seven high schools in my county; today, there are three. Some of the smaller towns, in the narrow mountain valleys where the coal mines were, have almost entirely vanished.

What’s the matter with West Virginia is that people fear death.

Coal is the only thing people in places like Boone County know or have ever known. If you don’t work in coal, you cut hair for coal miners, clean their teeth, or sell them groceries.

My friend Brett Jarrell, a doctor in Huntington, likes to call the pervasive denial among the state’s citizens “West Virginia Stockholm syndrome.” Jack Spadaro, a former federal mine inspector and past head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy who became a whistle-blower, has a harsher analysis. “I can say this, because I am from there,” he tells me. “These people are willfully ignorant, and they’re proud of it. People in the coalfields have the attitude that coal is our livelihood, and we don’t care what it does to our water.”

“We’re talking about families that have been mining coal for three or four or five generations,” says Jeremy Richardson of the UCS. “Trying to explain to my brother that coal is destroying the planet is the same thing as someone coming into my office and telling me that what I’m doing as a scientist is destroying the planet and that I have to do something else now. That’s hard to hear. But I can just work on my résumé and do something else.” In places like Boone County there is no something else.

Paul Rakes’ dad was a miner who retired at 56. Rakes says his father didn’t have a “particularly pleasant” old age because of physical problems resulting from accidents he’d suffered in the mines. He died at 72. Despite this experience, Rakes tells me one afternoon in his office, “up until he died, Dad would see some attack on the coal industry on TV, and he would say, ‘Why don’t they leave coal alone?’ Because in his memory, that’s when his life was good.”

As much as Junior Walk hates mining, he understands the problem of institutionalized dependence too. “For the last 150 years there has been nothing but the coal industry here,” he says. “There’s honestly not that much you can do [to break that mind-set].” Which doesn’t mean he won’t keep trying. If he doesn’t, who will?

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name Brett Jarrell. 

Comments ()