Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Mountaintops, communities permanently altered in West Virginia

Blasting tops off mountains devastates environment, costs workers jobs in already struggling region

West Virginia

Editor’s note: This is the second 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. The first part looked at residents beginning to speak out in the aftermath of January’s chemical spill. The final part, published Wednesday, explores the drug addiction that has set in as coal fades, and its impact on the state's children.

RALEIGH COUNTY, W.Va. — Every day around 4 p.m. near Rock Creek the ground rumbles.

The thunder comes with the shift change at the coal mines. It’s the sound of surface mining, as hundreds of acres of mountain summits are pulverized and decapitated to extract coal close to the surface.

It’s the reverberation of the pressure to keep energy prices low, Rock Creek resident Junior Walk said.

“That’s definitely felt by West Virginians every day at 4 p.m. when they set off their blasts.” Every day but Sunday, that is.

Junior Walk, an activist aiming to curb surface mining.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Residents say mountaintop removal, or MTR, in the coal hills of West Virginia is altering ridgelines, ravaging the environment and a way of life. Hills once lush with trees are stripped bare, carved away and flattened by explosives. It’s a method of mining ideal for accessing thin coal seams or those close to the surface that can’t be reached from underground, according to the West Virginia Coal Association.

Flat-topped mountains are becoming monuments to the polarizing force of the coal industry in southern West Virginia coal hill communities. The battle between the environmental impact of mines and the need for work as mining jobs recede and become more mechanized is pitting neighbor against neighbor and, in some cases, ripping families apart. The environmental and job losses brought on by mountaintop removal are part of the increasingly devastating impact the coal industry has had in recent decades on the West Virginian economy it dominates.

Underground mining produced 89.5 million tons in 2012, or about 5,800 tons per worker, according to the state coal association’s data. Surface mining, such as MTR, produced about 40 million tons, or about 8,200 tons per worker. Opponents say MTR allows mining companies to cut personnel overhead.

“Ever since this large-scale surface mining came into the area, there’s been a gradual decrease in the number of jobs for people around here,” Walk said. “That’s not because of environmental regulation. That’s just because of the mechanization in the coal industry not needing as many people to blow off the top of a mountain as they used to crawl back into a hole.”

Walk comes from a legacy of coal and said he has felt its environmental impact from an early age. The house he grew up in had well water tainted by sludge from a coal company on the ridgeline above his house.

“It didn’t take long before our water started going bad,” he recalled. “It would come out of our tap blood red every single day, and it was like that for seven years” before the house was hooked up to municipal water.

His father and grandfather both worked in mining, a path he reluctantly followed after high school. Walk was accepted to college but couldn’t afford to go.

“I was stuck here,” he said. He took a job at the coal prep plant alongside his dad.

“And some days I’d be in the basement of the plant, waist deep in coal sludge,” he said. “No goggles, no respirator. Just a pair of fishing waders and plastic boots that came up along our waist.”

“Doing that for 12 hours a day wears on you. Then I looked at my dad. He’s in pretty awful health. I didn’t want to be in that same state when I got to be his age.”

Walk said his dad has a workplace arm injury, diabetes, circulation problems and a Parkinson’s-like illness that doctors haven’t been able to diagnose. Walk believes years of working in the plant poisoned his father with acrylamide, a chemical used in coal processing.

Walk floated around minimum wage jobs and flipped burgers before a friend of the family eventually offered him a job as a security guard at a strip mine. The up-close vantage point of mountaintop removal turned his stomach.

Walk at his home in Rock Creek.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

“I felt like a miserable human being,” he said. “I knew I had to do something about it. I couldn’t just sit on my hands.”

He began writing anonymously for a newsletter published by Coal River Mountain Watch, a local watchdog organization devoted to stopping mountaintop removal. Now 23, Walk has been working with the organization more than four years and serves as its outreach coordinator.

The work, however, has prompted backlash.

“Extended family won’t speak to me anymore,” he said.

He had to leave his home.

“My dad had to kick me out. Not because he disagreed with me — he had to live with that same water when I was growing up,” Walk said. “He had to look like he was disowning me for doing this work, else he would have lost his job in a heartbeat.”

After a hostile exchange with angry pro-coal locals in October, Walk said, the brake lines on his car were cut.

For Walk, prep plant processing represents a bitter irony. So-called clean coal, the low-sulfur, high-volatility coal found in Appalachia, is in demand because of federal environmental standards that mandate the amount of impurities that need to be removed. Yet getting coal ready for utility plants means treating it with chemicals and water to separate crushed coal from noncombustible material, such as clay.

In essence, processing clean coal is a very dirty job.

“They can’t release those impurities into the air as the coal is burned, so they have to leave them here and put them in these sludge dams. That’s what you call clean coal right there,” he said, pointing to an aerial photo of trees surrounding a midnight black lagoon. “All that’s left in my community.”

And that’s where the pressure to stop it needs to start, he said.

“If we’re going to win,” he said, “we’re going to have to have the bulk of the community behind us, and they’re going to have to not be afraid of speaking out.”

Opposition to MTR has reached Capitol Hill. Congressional House Democrats — none from West Virginia — last year proposed the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (PDF), calling for a moratorium on MTR until studies can assess its impact on health. Citing initial scientific evidence, the lawmakers said immediate action was warranted to cut off new MTR permits and increase environmental and human health monitoring.

The proposed law has a lot stacked against it, starting with economics. Mountaintop removal offers more bang for the buck as a cheaper, easier way to mine.

“The incentive is this allows you to mine thinner seams of coal,” Bill Price, president of the West Virginia Sierra Club, told Al Jazeera. “They’ve been mining in Appalachia for a long time, so much of what is left in regards to coal reserves is that thin, closer-to-the-ground coal.”

Price, the son of a miner, grew up in West Virginia’s southern coal hills. He remembers how the coal companies paid for school band uniforms and gave Christmas gifts to the needy. The local school was on coal company ground.

“Every aspect of your life was controlled or branded by the coal company,” he said. “I think what people are waking up to is that, yes, the coal company has done that but what’s going on today isn’t that kind of coal mining.”

A bumper sticker in McDowell County.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

For one thing, the industry has consolidated. More than half of private land in West Virginia’s top coal producing counties is owned by the state’s top 10 landowners, none of them based in West Virginia, according to an assessment (PDF) released jointly in December by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee. Almost 18 percent of the state’s 13 million private acres are divided among just 25 owners.

Large-scale ownership can lead to large-scale consequences. Many of the mines in Raleigh County’s Coal River Valley region, for example, are owned by Alpha Natural Resources —formerly Massey Energy, the company that owned the mine that collapsed and killed 29 workers in 2010. In early March, the energy conglomerate was fined $27.5 million and ordered to spend $200 million on wastewater treatment systems as penalties for its illegal dumping of coal-processing discharge into waterways in five Appalachian states, including West Virginia. It was the largest settlement ever levied against an energy producer by the Environmental Protection Agency. Cynthia Giles, head of the EPA’s enforcement office, told the AP that the fine marked the biggest case for permit violations, numbers of violations and penalty size, “which reflects the seriousness of violations.”

Coal’s hold on the community strangles any potential opportunities with other industries, Price said.

“Who is going to move into a community where you cannot drink the water?” he asked. “Where you are constantly seeing blasting and all those impacts? Who is going to locate a factory or any business to any area that is not fit to live in?”

Living in coal communities comes with a steep price. In 2008 coal amounted to an annual $74 billion public health burden in Appalachian communities, according to a study by Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and Global Environment (PDF). In coal mining regions, the health consequences lead to 11,000 excess deaths each year from industry-induced ailments, such as lung cancer and respiratory disease, the study reported.

The direct cause is in the air, according to an epidemiology study authored by two West Virginia University professors released last month, which reported that the increased concentration of atmospheric particles making their way into lungs directly correlated to the elevated disease rates in mining areas, particularly MTR regions, which often have higher rates of cancer, birth defects, mortality and cardiovascular disease.

Despite the overwhelming health implications, many communities resist calls for enhanced regulation that would protect them, for fear of losing work.

“The reactions that we’re getting from people in the communities in Appalachia are, ‘We know this is a bad thing, but these are some of the few jobs that we have,’” Price said. “The coal industry has created a small economy where some communities are totally reliant on the coal industry for jobs and economic activity.”

A coal truck with a full load on the winding roads near Welch.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

“For years now in West Virginia and central Appalachian states, there’s been this atmosphere of deregulation and anti-regulatory rhetoric,” Price said.

The state’s water crisis is creating an opportunity to change that, he said. “People are united around a common cause of [the] human right for clean, safe water.”

Local opponents to MTR see the slow awakening as a new front in the state’s legacy of organizing.

“The people in the union recognize that organizing is the only way we’ve been able to obtain anything coming back to our communities — any fairer treatment, any better living conditions,” said Maria Gunnoe, a community organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Like other locals speaking out against MTR, Gunnoe turned to activism when surface mining began to hit her personally.

In recent years, for example, she and her family have had to take on coal companies for access to family cemeteries, which they say have been ripped apart by blasts and heavy earth moving equipment.

“In some cases, these are historic cemeteries,” Gunnoe said, noting that William Chapman “Chap” Cook, a Union soldier in the Civil War, is buried in the Cook Mountain Cemetery. “This is where our heroes lie. This is our Arlington Cemetery, so to speak.”

“Back years ago, they thought the closer they were to the sky, they don’t have to travel that far to heaven,” said Danny Cook, William Chapman Cook’s great grandson. “To me, it’s a sacred place.”

Danny Cook tries to visit family cemeteries at least once a month to keep a watchful eye, but said he has encountered resistance from the coal company that owns and mines the land surrounding the cemetery. State law prohibits mining within 100 feet of cemeteries. Alpha Natural Resources did not respond to Al Jazeera America’s request for comment, but a company representative denied violating the cemetery rule in a 2013 statement to Coal Valley News.

Last year, for example, Cook and other family members were granted permission to visit several cemeteries near the Twilight Surface Mine complex, owned by Alpha Natural Resources but were delayed for hours. Then the situation got more hostile, Cook said, when they were surrounded by mining employees and ordered to turn over personal cameras.

When they arrived at the last cemetery, they found the original access road had been destroyed and a hastily constructed dirt path just wide enough for one vehicle erected up the sheared-off rock face to allow the family access.

“They had just put in an access road for us,” with at least 13 hairpin-turn switchbacks, he said.

In the cemetery, the family found broken and overturned headstones. Another mess to clean up.

“I’m not against coal mining. What I’m against is the way they get the coal, by blowing off the top of the mountain," Cook said. “They know there are other ways to get the coal.”