Inside the Fight Against Pollution and Big Business in Appalachia
Every summer, environmentalists gather in the woods to strategize, train, and coordinate the fight against the excesses of the coal industry.
All photographs by Stacy Kranitz
When I was growing up in West Virginia, there was never talk of protest. Coal was the undisputed king of the region, and families like ours happily joined unions and went underground right out of high school to mine what we were told, proudly, was the purest coal in the country. Schools were lenient about attendance during deer season, allowing miners and their sons to blow off steam in windblown tree stands each fall. The coastal Carolina economies boomed every summer, as thousands of vacationing miners, so the joke goes, briefly extended West Virginia's southern border all the way to Myrtle Beach. Coal was flowing from south West Virginia, and it seemed like every double-wide up the holler had a satellite dish, a trampoline, and a shiny Ford F-150 in front of it. The only hint of discord we felt as kids in the 80s was when our fathers went on strike for higher wages or better benefits. "Scab" was the lowest thing a man could be called, "coal" was a way of life, and "protest" was an unknown.
It wasn't until years later, when the unions began to splinter, and the companies shifted to surface mining (a.k.a. mountaintop removal, or MTR, which is exactly what it sounds like), that the nastiness of coal mining became more of a national news story. Men like Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who crushed unions at his mines, rose to power. Cavalier attitudes toward safety created perilous work conditions—like the 2010 explosion at Big Branch Mine, which killed 29 men and led to Blankenship being convicted of a misdemeanor this December. Legitimate claims of disabling injury and persistent conditions such as black lung are now fought tooth and nail by the coal barons, the most powerful political force in the state. Environmental cleanups and reclamation projects are slow to happen when they happen at all. With the United Mine Workers of America union all but an afterthought and the crippled economy in the state, there is almost no one left to hold coal companies accountable anymore.
These past two decades were rough times for many families—some went to nonunion companies like Massey, and others headed to North Carolina or Alabama or Florida looking for safer, more reliable work. Even then, the notion that West Virginians should fight against coal mining, should shut down the mines and stop the pollution and havoc they wreaked on the region, was alien to us. And as even the nonunion operations began folding, and the companies undertook complex shell games with mining permits and ownership stakes, the people most impacted have refused to fight back against the companies, instead blaming President Barack Obama and lashing out against what they perceive to be a "war on coal" being waged against them by the federal government.
So when I got the chance last spring to go visit the Mountain Justice Convergence, a gathering for environmentalist activists who want to push back against the region's energy companies, I was extremely curious to meet these people who fight a battle few in West Virginia want to join. How many victories could they expect to win against the coal barons and the oligarchy they'd established in the West Virginia hills? How can they fight against environmental devastation and dangerous shifts in safety regulations when almost no government officials or civic leaders are willing to join them?
For those protesting the coal industry, success is measured in time and its relationship to money. Time lost to work stoppages is a victory. Forcing the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to document and levy even the bare-minimum fines, which most companies simply refuse to pay, is a victory. (A 2014 investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News "found that thousands of mine operators fail to pay safety penalties, even as they continue to manage dangerous—and sometimes deadly—mining operations.") So is forcing companies to go to court to defend running coal trucks overweight, even though the state ended up simply changing the rules for maximum capacity, in the company's favor? Attempts to show massive environmental damage to the water table from acid runoff have nearly all been stymied, despite multiple attempts to force coal operations to pay for the costly cleanup required following the closing of a surface mine. Coal companies leverage every financial and governmental advantage against those who seek to shut them down and clean up the messes they leave behind. It is a brutalizing and lopsided battle. Activists are in a war they can't win, at least not soon—but perhaps remarkably, they don't seem to be bitter about it.
Those who gathered in Kanawha State Forest for the event all shared a feeling of optimism and camaraderie that made the affair seem like a bucolic summer camp, despite the seriousness of the work. The 50 or so people assembled talked about protest, shared stories of actions both successful and otherwise, learned about the history of conflict in West Virginia, took nature walks, measured a nearby stream for pollutants, and climbed trees to learn the basic tenets of a tree-sit.
Mountain Justice is in its 11th year; the event that led to its creation was the 2004 death of a three-year-old named Jeremy Davidson who was pulverized by a boulder from a mine that crashed through his bedroom wall while he was sleeping. The first Mountain Justice Summer Convergence was held the following summer, and since then, the group has found no shortage of causes to inspire it. Sometimes, they plan and execute actions during the convergence itself.
Last summer, the activists focused on a nearby crisis: A battle over a surface mine known as KD2 was being waged between concerned Charleston-area citizens and Keystone Coal.
This mine in particular matters because it's where people can see it. The thing about mountaintop removal is that though it produces ugly scars on the landscape, and leaves behind an unfathomable number of toxic pollutants, these scars are generally out in the middle of nowhere. Scan any horizon in southern West Virginia, and you are likely see a ridgeline peeking up craggy and barren, somehow flatter than the densely forested peaks that surround it in rocky waves. Yet you can't ever seem to get close enough to actually see what it's like firsthand. Reclaimed land—that is, land formerly used for mining that has been restored to a state where people can use it—is more accessible than active mines, and many locals hunt, fish, and ride ATVs on it. Logan County built a regional airport on a reclaimed mine site, and there are plans to begin building lucrative federal penitentiaries on reclamation sites across the state. Active sites, on the other hand, are hidden beyond the reach of local communities.
MTR sites are in areas packed with low-slung, steep-banked hills that twist and turn inward on themselves; winding through the narrow roads that lead to them is a dizzy, exhausting kind of madness. Big companies like Massey have learned to tuck their operations behind ridgelines, where the public can't see, and where protesters can't reach. Guard shacks sit at the base of each operation, and the men who work in them are quick to hop into a pickup truck and drive out to meet would-be trespassers. I was personally turned away from nearly a dozen mine sites during my attempts to gain access last summer. Hardly anyone gets up the mountain unless he or she knows the land and can hike or four-wheel in from the surrounding woods.
But Keystone's KD2 operation was different. For the first time, the affluent upper-class people who paid for the pleasure of living along the well-manicured ridgelines overlooking the Kanawha River and adjacent Charleston skyline were feeling the burn of being a mountaintop removal community. The result was a sudden surge of anger. When I was in the area, "Stop KD2" and "Save Kanawha State Forest" signs were taped facing outward from windows of shops in the South Hills neighborhood of Charleston and staked into manicured lawns lush with grass. Bumper stickers adorned BMWs and Land Rovers alongside others bearing names like Romney and Ryan, Palin and McCain. It was a mess politically, and nearly unfathomable to veteran protesters, but the anti-mine movement was gaining traction locally.
Normally activists don't get such support. A typical protest effort is more along the lines of Coal River Mountain Watch's protracted fight to close a MTR site and sludge dam located within spitting distance of Marshfork Elementary School. At Mountain Justice, Coal River Mountain Watch's Vernon Haltom delivered a talk on the battle over Marsh Fork Elementary and the health problems faced by people living in MTR communities. He also drove attendees out to the school—now an abandoned husk—with his second-in-command, Junior Walk, an activist who works with several local organizations. I joined them for the first trip.
Walk had been a student at Marshfork Elementary before it became known for the alarming number of children with respiratory ailments. In 2005, Coal River Mountain Watch surveyed 60 houses with children attending the school and found that 91 percent of them had either asthma or chronic bronchitis. According to Haltom, health inspectors ignored the obvious health risks and the skirting of code violations from having a school this close to an active MTR site. When pressed, they'd check air filters for mold and declare the school safe. But by all accounts, the place was filthy. "You could rub your finger across a desk, and it would come away black with coal dust," Haltom said. It was only after intense pressure from the community that tests were conducted for heavy metals like nickel, lead, and arsenic that are found in coal dust. A short while after this, former Massey Energy employee Ed Wiley walked 500 miles to Washington, DC, distributing brochures along the way on a pilgrimage to grab then-Senator Robert C. Byrd by the ear and force him to address the problem back home. A little over four years later, the school was shuttered, and a new one was built just a few miles up the road from Sundial.
With the new school in place, Haltom told me, many in the community felt the problem had been solved, though few were too eager to thank Coal River Mountain Watch for their role in battle. And as Walk was quick to remind us, "the largest sludge dam in the Western Hemisphere is still right there, and a few miles down the road is my parents' house, and the house I just bought, and my grandparents' house. When it goes, we're all dead."
A stocky, strong-jawed Appalchian with a dishwater-blond ponytail and ruddy chin-beard, Walk suffers from "severe gastro-intestinal problems" and "can't eat no spicy food" and "can't drink no alcohol." An endoscopy revealed a brutal case of chronic gastritis. "A lot of my stomach lining was just gone. That was three years ago, and I ain't been back to the doctor since." Walk's status as a local, a coal miner's son who was also hurt by coal-related devastation, hasn't done much to curb animosity toward him and Coal River Mountain Watch's work. There had been enough death threats and insults that he didn't want to have his photo taken on his porch because he feared his neighbors—his former classmates and their parents—might burn it down.
You might look at what someone like Walk goes through, and the small victories that people like him achieve, and ask why they bother fighting at all. But the stakes are high, and the consequences of the coal industry are horrible to behold. "Cancer is as common as a cold here," said Haltom. "You can see it coming down the road, and you can see it over here in the bushes, with his big scythe knocking on people's doors saying, 'Who's gonna be next?' And when he gets to your mother-in-law, well, what do you do then?"
Walk seems torn between love for his home and loathing for what's been done to it. He has no faith in coal and attributes grim events like the Upper Big Branch explosion to power run amok in the region. "Whenever I take people and show them the disaster site up there, I try to make it a point to say to them, 'This isn't capitalism gone horribly, horribly wrong," he said. "It's the American way, and capitalism gone horribly, horribly right.'" Ultimately, he has too much skin in the game to leave it behind and too little hope for his own future to care about the fact that his protest work has made him a pariah in his community, a stretch of half-dead coal camps brimming with boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated houses.
Ultimately, this wasn't a fight they chose, but it's a fight they're committed to. "Look, we don't live where they mine coal," Haltom told me. "They mine coal where we live. And they still are."
"This isn't capitalism gone horribly, horribly wrong. It's the American way and capitalism gone horribly, horribly right."
For the Kanawha Forest Coalition, the group fighting the KD2 mine near Charleston, things aren't nearly as bleak. By dint of being a newer organization, without the tangled history of defeat and devastation, the group has an intoxicating energy. They have the backing of wealthy locals and officials like Congressman Mike Pushkin, and its small but nimble staff has enjoyed a string of surprising victories, led by Chad Cordell.
The group didn't try to frame itself as being in opposition to mountaintop removal in general, instead focusing its efforts on the KD2 mine alone. Cordell says the idea was to "see if we can get a win here—wins are so rare to have in this battle. Let's focus people's attention."
During the most heavily attended presentation at the retreat, members of the Kanawha Forest Coalition told the enraptured crowd that in order to avoid negative attention associated with MTR protest the group had created a top-to-bottom campaign built around the region's love affair with the Kanawha State Forest, using an attachment that for so many stems from childhood field trips and overnight camping excursions and linking it to the anticipated devastation that would surely follow in the wake of an active surface mine at KD2.
Despite that appeal to nostalgia, they got their asses kicked at first: In February 2015, the West Virginia Surface Mine Board denied the appeal, headed by the Kanawha Forest Coalition. Things looked bleak. But for Cordell, it was just what the group needed. Locals became incensed that their concerns weren't heard, and their distaste for suddenly finding themselves living in an active surface mine community fell on deaf ears. During a conversation the morning after his group's presentation, Cordell told me they were able to funnel this anger and frustration into larger support for its cause. Along with writing letters to the editors of local newspapers, arranging in-person protests, and connecting citizens from the hollers with those in the hilltop mansions via Facebook, the Kanawha Forest Coalition had another card up its sleeve.
Using what Cordell called "ninjas," or locals with a knowledge of the landscape surrounding KD2, the Kanawha Forest Coalition began taking samples of runoff in streams and documenting safety and environmental violations with film and video. They sent these to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and to the media, overwhelming them both with irrefutable evidence that bad things were coming to Kanawha State Forest. Water samples were regularly taken from impacted streams—something Cordell told the Charleston Gazette-Mail in June 2015 that the company was required to do but of course didn't—and over a span of several months increasing pollution became undeniable. The group was also able to provide evidence of a population of endangered bats in the area, again establishing what would be at risk if the mine was allowed to remain active.
By doing the DEP's job better than the DEP, reporting the findings clearly and conclusively, and then tethering that work to the local outrage following the denial of their citizens' appeal, Cordell suddenly found that his organization's efforts were being reported "on the front pages of all of the local papers."
"By not coming right out and saying, 'We oppose all MTR,'" Cordell says, "and instead focusing on stopping KD2, we've been able to educate and raise awareness for thousands of people about water violations in the hope that it carries on in the bigger picture. I hope in the future people will make the connection between what's happening in this MTR operation and think, I wonder if that's what's happening at other MTR operations everywhere else."
By May, the DEP was feeling serious heat from the local community for approving the KD2 mine, leading DEP Secretary Randy Huffman to release an unusual written statement allowing that "because of the close proximity to the forest, [the DEP has gone] above and beyond the normal regulatory requirements for both permitting and inspection enforcement." By June, the KD2 mine was suspended altogether. Cordell's team now hopes to build on their string of victories to refocus West Virginians on the stunning natural beauty of the state, rather than the coal it contains.
After breakfast on the last morning of Mountain Justice, Cordell told a group of attendees lingering at the table that the next battle for the Kanawha Forest Coalition is to seek a permanent revocation of the KD2 mining permit, which would halt that operation permanently. Then would come the battle over who would be paying for the mess the mine leaves behind—and historically, environmentalists have been unable to hold companies responsible in those types of fights.
There were other causes, too, beyond the Kanawha Valley. West Virginians still cry out for the mines to return, schools are being shuttered across the southern part of the state, and county budgets have been slashed due to declining coal tax revenue. Blackhawk, the nonunion operation that controls Kentucky's coal industry, is now gobbling up West Virginia companies, and people like Haltom and Cordell will have their hands full. Still, the mood as attendees loaded tents and hiking gear into their vehicles in preparation for the trip home was positive; they seemed well-prepared for the next battle, likely just over the ridgeline.
Jacob S. Knabb is an Appalachian by birth and a Chicagoan by choice. He's currently at work on a novel called COAL PUNK, a cycle of poems called LOW COAL, and loves to take portraits of writers. He also works a day job as communications associate for a not-for-profit. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
See more photos below.
Activists learn how to conduct a macroinvertebrate stream survey, which can be used to determine the health of streams affected by strip-mining.