Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Coal leaves deep, wide wake in West Virginia

Residents speaking out after chemical disaster, decades of anti-regulation rhetoric, industry decline and poverty


Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining the impact of the coal industry on health, the environment and overall quality of life for the people of West Virginia. Part 2, published Tuesday, focuses on the environmental and employment effect of mountain top removal. Wednesday's final part explores the drug addiction that has set in as coal fades, and its impact on the state's children.

NAOMA, W.Va. — Trucks laden high with coal lurch and career into every bend as they barrel down WV Route 3, slipping past a nondescript tawny brick building on the side of the tight mountain road in this rural hamlet. The old brick community center, still outfitted with hard-backed restaurant booths, is now headquarters of a homegrown revolution, fighting to loosen the grip of coal.

For local activist Debbie Jarrell, coal’s stranglehold on the state wasn’t apparent until about a decade ago, when she realized that her then-8-year-old granddaughter was getting sick, complaining of headaches at school and her face becoming blotchy.

“A girl that young shouldn’t be keeping headaches,” Jarrell said, recalling when she knew something was wrong. Other kids were complaining of feeling sick, too.

The community’s elementary school yard, she realized, was sitting about 200 feet from a newly built coal silo at the preparation plant next to the Brushy Fork Coal impoundment in Sundial. There coal is washed and chemically treated before being loaded into the railcars that snake alongside a tributary of the Coal River. More troubling, she quickly learned, was the nearly 400-foot-high earthen dam that filled in the hollow on the back ridge behind the school, holding back nearly 3 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge.

A coal processing plant sits less than a football field away from the old Marsh Fork Elementary School in Naoma, W.Va. The school was closed and reopened about six miles down the road after protests from concerned parents and a petition from residents.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Jarrell’s husband, Ed Wiley, worked at the local coal mine and realized the danger to anyone near that dam. Heavy rains could cause a sludge impoundment – a reservoir of coal sludge – to overrun or the dam holding it to burst. It happened in 1972 south of Naoma in the Buffalo Creek Valley in Logan County, when about 132 million gallons of coal slurry – the liquid mineral suspension byproduct of coal production – broke free, killing 118 and leaving more than 4,000 homeless.

“Why would an engineer say it’s OK to build that on top of a school?” she wondered. Jarrell and her husband tried to engage politicians about relocating the school to a safer site but got nowhere. He quit his job because of his activism, and they made do the best they could. Then they mounted an effort to get their voices heard. Others joined. Her husband walked more than 450 miles to Washington in a bid to raise awareness and money for a new school.

“He had more dedication and more gumption than I ever thought possible,” Jarrell said.

She joined Coal River Mountain Watch, a small local nonprofit focused on coal’s environmental impact, and is now a co-director. And in January 2013 a new community elementary school opened its doors about six miles down the road in Rock Creek.

“The years of continuous bickering with the officials and the community turning their backs on you – it was definitely very stressful,” Jarrell said.

“I blame our state representatives, our elected politicians for that. They get up here in front of the TV cameras and talk about how people are taking these coal-mining jobs.”

It’s a rote script throughout West Virginia, Jarrell said: “The tree huggers, you know, they’re taking your jobs. You better stand up for yourself or you’re going to be out of a job and you can’t feed your family.”

Her mouth went tight, her lips stretching into a line. “It’s been like that for a long, long time. I would say since the conception of West Virginia.”

Life is settled into the isolated blue hill creases in West Virginia. Trees stripped bare by winter bristle up rock ridges, softening contours that eventually relent to signs of life in communities hugging the sides of narrow state highways. The rural mountains, however, are filled with treacherous gaps, economically and environmentally, that highlight the pervasive disparity between the state’s poorest and its top industry.

A crew positions booms to contain the chemical leak from the West Virginia American Water Co. in the Elk River, in Charleston, Jan. 11, 2014.
Ty Wright/Washington Post/Getty Images

As West Virginia continues to face national scrutiny over a coal-industry chemical leak that contaminated tap water for 300,000 residents in early January, homegrown environmentalists like Jarrell and other outraged citizens say they hope the disaster can be leveraged to chip away at the historical cycle of anti-regulatory rhetoric and exploitation of the state’s resources. More than a century of dependence on coal for jobs and identity has left the state tethered to a way of life that has been slow to evolve, with an industry that is becoming more mechanized and lorded over by outside energy conglomerates. Coalfield communities that once rode high in boom times now face the grim reality of the social cost of life after coal, from job loss and rampant drug addiction to the environmental threats that endanger communities and chip away at quality of life and, ultimately, potential new industry opportunities.

Unlike the well-publicized January spill near the state’s capital, however, water spoiled by toxic coal-slurry spills is not big news in rural coal country, according to one state natural-resource official in McDowell County.

“I see it as an ongoing problem for the last 25, 30 years,” said Carl Mullins, supervisor of the Southern Conservation District, which includes McDowell County. It’s a common occurrence, especially in the winter when there’s no control of runoff, he said.

“One of the problems of the coal-mining industry is that it’s dirty all the way around,” Mullins said.

Here in West Virginia, coal is both religion and the devil – revered and reviled but rarely in equal measure.

The industry is so powerful, it has done the seemingly impossible by Capitol Hill standards and has largely unified Republicans and Democrats on one front: a deep disdain of government regulation by depicting regulation of the industry as a direct threat to employment and the state’s economic well-being.

But the familiar rhetoric is showing signs of wear under the spotlight that followed the Elk River spill. A week after that disaster, the state’s U.S. senators, both Democrats, introduced a bill in direct response to the incident, calling for enhanced state inspections of aboveground chemical storage tanks.

In 2012, West Virginia produced 129 million tons. At least 27 percent of the coal was sent out of state, according to an economic outlook (PDF) recently compiled by West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics. Exports are proving a lifeline for the industry, with its fickle booms and busts. Coal production dropped 10 percent in 2012, and the industry responded by slashing about 12 percent of its workforce – about 3,000 jobs. More cuts are coming, according to economists.

“Productivity at the nation’s coal mines has been falling for more than a decade, and this trend is expected to continue as more easily mined reserves are exhausted,” the report stated.

A coal processing plant near Twilight, W.Va., on Feb. 18.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

The burden of an ever-growing demand for affordable energy is apparent in West Virginia’s southern coal hills, left pockmarked and socially and economically subject to the whims of the industry’s ups and downs. Nowhere is this clearer than in McDowell County, which sits at the bottom of the state, both geographically and statistically. The county comes in last in West Virginia for child and family well-being, leading the state – and, effectively, the nation – in unintended drug overdose deaths, according to a local family services assessment (PDF). In 2010, almost half the county’s residents relied on government aid and the per capita income barely topped $10,000.

Paradoxically, coal is often considered a tool in eradicating global poverty, and “essential in transforming agrarian societies to modern industrial ones,” with reduced contagious diseases, child mortality and increased life expectancy, according to the International Energy Agency’s Coal Industry Advisory Board (PDF).

According to U.S. census data, 18 percent of West Virginia falls below the poverty line. In rural backwaters such as McDowell County, however, that line snags nearly twice as many, about 34 percent. When it comes to single-mother households, the number jumps to 87 percent.

But it wasn’t always that way.

About 120 years ago, coal became the way of life in McDowell following the introduction of a regional railroad and the opening of mines in the early 1890s. Prosperity followed and the population swelled, peaking in the 1950s at 100,000. When it came to coal production numbers, McDowell gouged out more than any other county. But by the early 1960s, the decline of mining had set in and was deep enough to spark a social movement in the U.S. after catching the eye of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy spoke with miners during a visit to West Virginia in 1960.
Hank Walker/Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images

“McDowell County mines more coal than it ever has in its history, probably more coal than any county in the United States, and yet there are more people getting surplus food packages in McDowell County than any county in the United States,” Kennedy said in the fall of 1960 following a campaign stop in the region. In response to coal’s contraction, residents were leaving by the thousands in search of work outside the isolated mountain hollow.

Kennedy’s observations of the poverty level stuck with him. Soon after entering the White House he launched a pilot food-stamp program, and the nation’s first food stamps were issued in the county in 1961. Three years later, McDowell County would become one of the principal counties in President Lyndon Johnson’s federal War on Poverty legislative effort.

Half a century later, government aid remains essential for a large number of West Virginians. In 2012, for example, almost 1 in 5 received food stamps (PDF), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The hardscrabble legacy of mining that binds families to economically depressed corners of West Virginia can often leave residents reticent to speak out about potential environmental threats.

The environmental problems go beyond what has been reported, but are kept quiet out of fear, said Mullins, supervisor of the conservation district.

“There’s more than the regular citizen knows, yes,” he said. “The regular citizen, the coal miner in particular, he cannot say anything. He has to go along with what the coal companies tell him to do because if he don’t he’ll lose his job. They won’t tell you anything. If they do, then they’re laid off from their jobs or discriminated against. That’s the way I see it here in Appalachia.

“You can see it going down the river, but you can’t know who turned it loose or when it was turned loose,” he said of the prep plant overruns, adding that enforcement of existing regulations is not common.

“One more regulation here isn’t going to solve the problem. One more temporary spill of this or that chemical – they’ve been putting chemicals in these rivers all my life,” he said, suggesting fines that “would really hurt” might force coal companies into doing necessary mitigation work.

“If you’ve got the regulation in place – which it is – it’s not enforced,” he said. “And if it’s not enforced, it will go until somebody is really affected, such as a death.”

Mountaintops in southern West Virginia.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Like most people living in the southern coal hills, Mullins has firsthand experience with the kind of squeeze the industry has put on the region. Returning home to the state in the 1980s after a 20-year career in the military, he began working for a deep-shaft coal mine that had 1,200 workers. Since that time, the mine has been sold several times, each sale opening the door to more modernization. Job losses have been exacerbated by the industry’s turn toward mountaintop removal, a surface mining technique in which hundreds of feet of summit are removed with explosives.

“You don’t need 2,000 people anymore,” said Mullins. “You only need 20. And get more coal. So that’s what’s driving the coal industry.”

The economic cost is real.

“People just have to endure or move,” he said. “Basically, you just have no choice.”

Poverty in rural areas means there is little choice but to endure in living conditions meant for another period. In McDowell County, the community is largely bound to antiquated, coal-camp-era infrastructure that allows raw sewage to flow from homes into waterways. The homes were once owned and kept up by the local coal companies, but were not updated to modern sewer systems before they were divested, leaving behind a significant financial and environmental hurdle for the community to deal with on its own.

“Mining does account for some of the water-quality issues. But overwhelmingly here, it’s the fecal coliform,” said Margaret Nevi, project coordinator for the Wastewater Treatment Coalition of McDowell County. Wastewater flowing into water sources in the county shows fecal coliform levels 1,000 times higher than the state’s allowable standard, Nevi said.

“It’s hard to test for anything else,” she said.

The “straight piping” of untreated sewage water from toilets, showers and sinks into water sources, such as creeks and streams, was a common method for disposing of wastewater throughout parts of the U.S. until the 1950s. Currently about 62 percent [DO1] of McDowell County homes rely on straight piping wastewater, an improvement from the estimated 67 percent about a decade ago. Residents get drinking water from treated municipal sources or wells, but are forced to avoid contact with the water sources and any fish in them. Creeks – some bearing telltale signs of toilet paper snagged along low-lying branches – have been rendered a breeding ground for disease-carrying bacteria that can cause dysentery, hepatitis and infections.

Converting rural Appalachian communities to more modern wastewater treatment systems is often hampered by geography and expense. While homeowners are eligible for low-interest loans and assistance in putting in septic systems, those systems aren’t always an option because the water table is too high for drainage. And estimates for installing waste systems in towns such as Coalwood – a community of about 200 homes – would cost about $7 million, Nevi said.

“The problem is, it is such a huge problem here,” she said. “And a lot of people don’t have the means to do anything about it.”


“For the past five years a storm was brewing just over the horizon,” West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney wrote in last year’s annual report about federal regulatory attempts. Overall, mine production has dropped 22 percent since 2008, to 129 million tons, according to the association. While requests for comment from the organization, as well as the National Mining Association, went unanswered, the industry has been plenty outspoken about where it lays blame.

“An out-of-control federal agency began a war on coal and it is up to Congress to bring it to an end, once and for all,” Raney said.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., partnered late last year to push forward legislation that would neuter what they called an overreach in EPA regulation targeting coal-fired power plant greenhouse gases. Closer to home, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, last month took the opportunity to rail against the “economically unfeasible” EPA power plant regulations while he was in Washington, D.C., meeting with the agency to discuss state remediation efforts following the Elk River spill.

“An unreasonable regulatory structure could destabilize our once reliable power grid, increase energy costs to vulnerable ratepayers, further burden industrial employers, and devastate coal-mining families and communities,” he wrote in a letter (PDF) to the EPA. 

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Steve Helber/AP

For politicians such as Tomblin and Manchin, coal is as much a part of their campaign war chests as of the fabric of their state. Almost half (46 percent) of Tomblin’s $7.6 million in campaign contributions amassed in recent years has come from industry pockets, according to data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign finance. His list of top contributors includes major energy players, including FirstEnergy Corp., CONSOL Energy, Patriot Coal, Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal. Mining interests also rang up top contributions for congressional lawmakers in recent years, including $613,000 for Manchin and $711,000 for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is retiring this year, has distanced himself from the pro-coal rhetoric, blasting its “feverish pitch” on the Senate floor last summer. He called out the “carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians” while ignoring inevitable change in the energy industry. Taking on coal’s record at home during a House field hearing in Charleston on Feb. 10, Rockefeller called it “shortsighted” to think the Elk River spill was an isolated incident.

“It’s time,” he said at the hearing, “to acknowledge that industry is not looking out for you.”

Devoid of a vibrant middle class, rural Appalachia continues to bear the scars of generations of chronic poverty, largely due to an enormous educational deficit, according to Mil Duncan, policy fellow at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute. Duncan, who wrote “Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America,” has found similarities between plantation communities in the Mississippi Delta and coal regions of Appalachia, where coal companies were historically fearful that education would lead to unionization and civil rights organizing.

“They didn’t invest in education of workers and citizens as many other places did,” Duncan said.

It’s a legacy that has complicated the way forward for the region as coal jobs have contracted and become more skilled due to mechanization.

“People are kind of hunkered down if they haven’t left, if they don’t have many prospects,” Duncan said. “Since the War on Poverty, there’s been a lot of good community development plans. In the face of the enormity of the problems, it’s just not enough.”

The coal industry’s legacy can be just as devastating environmentally, as the January spill indicated, as well as socially for those areas tethered tight economically when it starts to dry up, she said.

The coal industry has become a polarizing force pitting neighbors, and in some cases family members, against each other and perpetuating echoes of old union fights — “you’re either for us or ‘agin’ us,” she said. “It’s really hard for change to emerge even though there are earnest, honest people trying to bring it about. Until the education attainment and literacy skills are improved, it’s really hard to go beyond this coal economy.”

But in a disaster, hope may be found.

“That chemical spill has made the anti-regulation stance of the coal industry less powerful,” Duncan said. “Maybe it will be a little opening after all.”

Activists around the state are banking on it.

Late last month, activists delivered more than 50,000 signatures to the director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement seeking federal intervention to shutter West Virginia’s mining enforcement program. The state’s environmental protection agency, they argue, “has been captured by the coal industry, and can’t be trusted to ensure safe, clean drinking water.”

They have increasing reason to worry. In early February, a scant month after the Elk River chemical spill in Charleston, containment failure at a coal slurry impoundment blackened about 6 miles of creek water in eastern Kanawha County with 100,000 gallons of the toxic sludge.

State enforcement officials are focusing on restoring public confidence. Speaking on Feb. 19 about the Elk River and Kanawha incidents, state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman told the West Virginia Gazette that he wanted his agency to focus on prevention.

“You don’t protect the environment by reacting after the fact," he told the newspaper. His comments were made just hours before another spill was confirmed more than 100 miles away in the southern tip of the state. Melting snow was blamed for a run-over of blackwater — the toxic byproduct of coal production — into creek water in the McDowell County town of Gary.

Meaningful change, many fear, will come only when the state feels pressure beyond its borders.

“I am glad for that attention,” said Jarrell, the activist grandmother. “We need to start hollering now while people are still listening to us.”

Downtown Welch in the middle of the day — slow even for February.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America