In pursuit of the nation's highest-grade coal, vast mining operations are taking the tops right off of West Virginia's mountains. Mining companies say this is good for the state, but people who live near the mines have a different view.
Unseasonably cool air had already settled in the hollows of Blair, W.Va., when flames shot from a small white house one Sunday evening in mid-April. Firefighters arrived, but no one rushed in to save belongings. There weren't any.
As the fire burned, high on the mountain above appeared another glow--the lights from a giant shovel with an arm 20 stories high. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the $100 million machine gobbles up the mountain to unearth coal deposits. Within three years, the top third of the 840-foot-high peak will be sheared off.
Tommy Moore, Johnny Rollins, and Charles "Mushie" Bella Jr., who live nearby, watched the house burn. It was easy for them to see a connection between the burning house and the giant shovel. The mining operation has bombarded the houses below with dust, noise, and occasional rocks. So rather than fight constant complaints from homeowners, Arch Coal Inc., the mine's owner, has bought more than half of the 231 houses in Blair through a subsidiary. Vacated and quickly stripped, at least two dozen have been burned down by one or more arsonists.
Seventy-six years ago, Blair Mountain was a battleground in the bitter attempt to unionize underground mines. Now the descendants of those miners are fighting a new battle. They are losing their mountains and valleys. An aerial inspection suggests that 15 percent of the mountaintops in the south-central part of the state--and perhaps 25 percent in some places there--are being leveled in massive strip-mining operations with the straightforward name of "mountaintop removal." The valleys between them are filled with the debris. Permits have beengranted by the state for 512 square miles of West Virginia to be surface-mined. Most of that--though no one knows exactly how much--is for mountaintop removal. State survey maps show huge swaths permitted for surface mining. Indeed, if the mining continues unabated, environmentalists predict that in two decades half the peaks of southern West Virginia's blue-green skyline will be gone.
Mountaintop removal is also practiced in southeastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, and western Pennsylvania. But the impact has been especially intense in West Virginia. Its southern mountains are loaded with the low-sulfur coal that electric utilities seek because it burns efficiently and produces less pollution than other coal. The state's weak environmental laws and lax regulators are a magnet for mining--and have made its effect more profound.
The coal companies do not dispute that their practices are changing the landscape. They say, essentially, that they are doing the least-destructive job that they can to extract a resource the whole world craves. They note that once they have flattened the mountains and filled in the adjacent valleys, they reclaim the scarred landscape in accordance with environmental laws. The ground is smoothed, and grass, shrubs, and small trees are planted. In the best reclamations, the land is contoured and waterfowl ponds added. Moreover, the coal companies and some state officials note that strip mining provides high-paying jobs--weekly pay averages $922. And some contend that West Virginians are better off with their mountains flattened--several dozen buildings, including four schools and three jails, have been built on them so far.