Michael Shnayerson Coal River

ISBN 13: 9780374125141

Coal River

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9780374125141: Coal River
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One of America's most dramatic environmental battles is unfolding in southern West Virginia. Coal companies are blasting the mountains, decapitating them for coal. The forested ridge tops and valley streams of Appalachia―one of the country's natural treasures―are being destroyed, along with towns and communities. An entire culture is disappearing, and to this day, most Americans have no idea it's happening.

Michael Shnayerson first traveled to the coal fields four years ago, on assignment for Vanity Fair. There he met an inspiring young lawyer named Joe Lovett, who was fighting mountaintop removal in court with a series of brilliant and daring lawsuits. He also met Judy Bonds, whose grassroots group, the Coal River Mountain Watch, was speaking out in a region where talking truth to power was both brave and dangerous. The two had joined forces to take on Massey Energy, the largest and most aggressive of the coal companies, and its swaggering, notorious chairman, Don Blankenship.

Coal River is Shnayerson's account of this dramatic struggle. From courtroom to boardroom, forest clearing to factory floor, Shnayerson gives us a novelistic and compelling portrait of the people who risked their reputations and livelihoods in the fight against King Coal.

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About the Author:

Michael Shnayerson is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. His books include The Car That Could: GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle and The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria with co-author Mark J. Plotkin.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue 
Something looks very wrong with southern West Virginia. 
 Seen from a plane, its forested ridges lie below, stretching like waves into the misty distance. But there amid them, like cancerous growths, lie large gray splotches. They might be clearings for new subdivisions, if they weren’t so remote. They might be a blight, except that there’s nothing for a blight to infect: everything, from trees to grass, is gone. More than anything, they look like crop circles: mysterious signs made to be read from above. But made by whom? And signifying what?
 On Interstate 77, running south from Charleston with its gold-domed capitol, the hills on either side of the highway rise and dip with not a tree out of place. No strange clearings here. In ten minutes comes the turnoff for Route 94 east and then, a short way farther, Route 3 south, the two-lane blacktop that snakes through the Coal River valley. No clearings here yet, either.
 Soon the hills on either side move in, narrowing the sky to a slit. The road bobs down and up and down again, under canopies of trees and around hairpin curves. Then the trees recede, and the valley widens just enough to hold a scattering of small houses, sunlit at noon but soon shadowed by the steep hillside behind them. The houses are separated from Route 3 by a stream overlaid with wood-plank crossings, like drawbridges over a moat.
 This is the heart of the Appalachian coalfields—not fields at all but rugged, forested hills that still hide billions of tons of coal. No shiny new McDonald’s restaurants or Burger Kings punctuate Route 3’s 56-mile passage from Racine south to Beckley. No hotels or motels; no Home Depots or Targets; no Applebee’s restaurants or Olive Gardens or TGI Friday’s. The Coal River valley is too steep for the malls and crossroads that could support such establishments. More to the point, it’s too poor, and the coal companies own most of the land anyway. The residents of the Coal River valley are safe from the restless spread of franchise businesses of almost every kind. It’s about all they are safe from.
 In some ways, the valley confounds expectations. There are no tarpaper shacks, no miners in overalls with coal-smudged faces, no old jalopies. A few of the roadside houses have porches, but on none of them is an autistic mountain boy playing a banjo. The houses are wood or brick, neatly kept, and the pickup trucks that stop at the gas marts are mostly late-model American brands.
 Yet coal’s legacy, in the valley that bears its name, is everywhere. Nearly all the hamlets on Route 3 are old coal towns, named after the camps’ founders—Edwight, Stickney, Pettus—or, as with Eunice and Dorothy, the founders’ daughters. In the 1910s, when train tracks began to stretch like vines through the valley, coal operators put up company towns here almost overnight. That was when miners lived in slapped-together two-family cottages with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Those cottages are long gone, as are the company stores and the company scrip the miners were paid, instead of money, for their long hours underground. But the towns remain, in some semblance or another. Some are mere meadows, with a few remaining foundations turned to mossy mounds. Others are just clusters of houses without a store. A few have gas marts, and fewer still a second or third store that might qualify them as a proper American town.
 So close in are the hillsides that a visitor might be forgiven for thinking, as he drives through, that he’s seeing all the life there is to see here. Most residents of the valley live up the hollows that go off like ribs from Route 3’s curving spine. The roads that wind up those hollows grow narrow and give way to dirt. The houses tucked into the nooks of those hollows are mostly hand-built. Some are cottages, and some are just shacks, and many of the inhabitants of those dwellings do speak in an Appalachian patois that mixes the accents of their Scotch and Irish and English forebears. Some of them don’t come down much, and if they do, they don’t go much farther than the nearest town.
 On Route 3, the first sign of mining in the valley is typically a coal truck that heaves into view. The road has no shoulder to speak of, and in places an outcropping of rock from the hillside extends just overhead, so that a car has only inches of leeway as the truck hurtles by. Coal-truck drivers are often paid by the haul, not by the hour, and so the faster they arrive at their destination, the sooner they can start their next haul. If they bear full loads and a car appears suddenly in front of them, the trucks can’t always stop in time. The local papers announce coal-truck accidents with depressing frequency, usually with fatalities and pictures of a car or pickup crunched to smithereens.
 Two miles north of Whitesville—roughly the valley’s social midpoint—looms the next indication of mining in the valley. Fences and “Keep Out” signs surround an industrial site of drab, factorylike buildings and conveyor belts. This is a coal-preparation plant, not a mine. Coal from various mines is brought here, by belt and by truck, to be cleaned of debris, crushed into chunks or dust, and loaded onto trains for market. Massey Energy, the large, Virginia-based company that owns this operation, calls it Elk Run, after the elk that used to run here before it was built.
 After the small, sleepy coal towns that line much of Route 3’s northern stretch, Whitesville comes as a shock. Once it was a thriving town, the hub of commerce between Charleston and Beckley. Now it looks desolate, its storefronts abandoned, its streets and sidewalks still. Hardly a car rolls by or lingers at the curb; even the parking meters are gone. Aside from the gas marts at either end of town, few businesses of any kind remain: two are funeral homes, and two are florists that serve the funeral homes. West Virginia may rank forty-ninth in prosperity among America’s fifty states, yielding only to Mississippi, but its citizens feel strongly about funeral flowers. At the valley’s largest cemetery, almost every gravestone is decorated with a bouquet.
 At Whitesville’s south end, Route 3 crosses a set of train tracks. At least once a day, traffic backs up half a mile on each side as a loaded coal train, impossibly long, passes slowly, slowly by. For a moment or two after the train passes, Whitesville seems a boomtown once again, with bustling commerce. But then the road clears, and a silence settles back, sure as coal dust, over Whitesville’s desolate Main Street.
 For the industry, this is a boom. Prices have soared, and demand is keen. Coal trains traverse the valley day and night. Coal trucks race up and down Route 3. Barges piled high with coal go down the broad Kanawha River, to the northwest. Yet little of this wealth has trickled down the hillsides into the Coal River valley, as it did in earlier booms. Whitesville resembles a wartime town pillaged by an advancing army. In a way, that’s what it is.
 You have to get up to a ridgetop to see that army’s path. The view from Larry Gibson’s place will do just fine. Gibson lives on the top of Kayford Mountain, just east of Whitesville. His ancestors moved to the valley in the late 1700s and acquired five hundred acres of the mountaintop by wedding dowry in 1886. Twenty years later, a land-company agent from out of state gulled an illiterate forebear into marking his X on a contract that transferred most of the land for “one dollar and considerations.” Almost everyone in the Coal River valley has a story like that. The Gibsons, unlike most families, managed to keep fifty acres at the top of the mountain. Gibson lives there still. His mountaintop is a little green island surrounded, as far as the eye can see, by brown, raw, devastated earth.
 This is what lies behind the picturesque backdrop of roadside hills in the Coal River valley: mountains reduced to rubble by the practice the industry calls mountaintop mining and its critics call mountaintop removal. The landscape from Gibson’s place is so much lower than his mountaintop compound that it’s hard to imagine the forested ridges that rose here before. It’s like a man-made Grand Canyon, except that the Grand Canyon teems with life, and this panorama has none—none except the men who work the distant dozers and huge-wheeled dump trucks, their motors a constant, hornetlike hum. An underground mine needs hundreds of miners, but a skeleton crew can handle a miles-wide mountaintop site, setting the blasts and operating the heavy machinery to push rubble into valley streams below. That’s one reason Whitesville looks as desperate as it does. The coal industry is making a killing. The Coal River valley is just getting killed.
 The coal companies have tried hard to buy Gibson out because, he says, Kayford Mountain has more than a dozen seams of coal, worth millions of dollars, directly under his property. Gibson has turned them down. They want him gone, too, because he still bears witness to what they’re doing here. That’s rare. The coal companies own or lease nearly all the land outside the valley towns—the legacy of similar land grabs one hundred years ago by out-of-state speculators—and for the most part they can gate their operations, keeping people a ridge or two away from their mountaintop sites. Gibson looks out and reports on every new ridgetop and valley destroyed in the Kayford area. His mountaintop compound, with its half-dozen shacks and family cemetery, is a vantage point for anyone from out of the area who wants to see what mountaintop mining is about.
 Miners hate that, and they find ways to let Gibson know it. They’ve shot up his place when he was there; his traile...

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