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The stories flow from them like water down the rivers where they live. But they only have each other to tell them to. Most other people don't want to know or aren't aware that places and problems like this exist.
For the people along the Ohio River and various other streams in West Virginia and southeast Ohio, though, the problems can't be ignored. For decades the windows of their homes have looked onto coal-processing or coal-burning plants that emit blue and brown plumes of smoke from their highest points. The plumes look peaceful, beautiful almost, as they trace the deep reds and pinks of a sunset sky.
That beauty fades at the realization that the blue in the smoke comes from the sulfuric acid and the brown from nitric oxide produced as byproducts from burning coal. The route the coal took to get to the plant is not so pretty either.
Some call it rape. Others call it devastation. But by whatever name, what coal companies are doing to mountains across Appalachia often wreaks havoc on the land and people. In the Appalachian coalfields, the coal industry owns more than half the rights to the coal underneath the land, and in West Virginia's top coal-producing counties, about 75 percent. Since 1981, they've strip-mined more than 500 square miles of the state, and the most efficient process has been through mountaintop removal.
To mine within the mountain, companies use dynamite to blast hundreds of feet, leveling the mountain's peak into layers from which they extract the coal. In early 2000, the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection permitted 27,000 acres for mountaintop removal, whereas throughout the `80s, they allotted only 9,800 acres to the process.
Those who oppose such mining object to more than the aesthetic destruction from the process. When the companies block off valleys and fill them with excess rock and debris, they put the people living at the mountains' feet in danger. In the first half of this decade, valley fills had buried more than 700 miles of streams across West Virginia, and nobody is quite sure how this will affect the area's hydrology -- other than that it will be severe.
The process also clears the mountains of their natural flood barriers. Families like Maria Gunnoe's, who lives in Bob White, W.Va., with her husband and daughters, experience flooding now even during years when rain is scarce.
"In 2001 I flooded three times, and that was a year of a drought," she said. "Floods, no rain. Blue skies, sun out, and I got flooded."
Through flooding in the following years, Gunnoe lost five acres of land, including two access bridges and her septic tank, which washed into the river. The five acres swept down the river and helped cause flooding in the next town, which had to be evacuated as a result.
In case of an emergency, Gunnoe keeps two Rubbermaid bins buried in her backyard with items such as tents and garbage bags. She acknowledged that she'll be trapped if any major disaster occurs because she has lost her access bridges. Her only way to safety would be up the mountain behind her home.
"During past floods, 911 (emergency services) came by and hollered, 'Are you okay?' I hollered back, 'What if I'm not?'" Gunnoe recalled, lifting her hands to her mouth in reenactment. "I'm paying taxes for services I can't even use."
The problems don't end at the mines, though. After the coal is extracted, it goes to power plants, like those of American Electric Power along the Ohio River, that burn it for energy. Burning releases toxic byproducts that aren't closely monitored in some cases.
But what can be done? More than 50 percent of American electricity comes from coal, so to decrease its popularity, people will have to look at their own consumption habits as well as alternative energy options.
"We're all implicated in this," said coal researcher Geoff Buckley, an Ohio University associate professor of geography. "Most people don't like to know where their power comes from, but when we look at the impacts of mining, we see our own values and priorities on the land."
The mountain keeper:
From peaks to plateaus
As rays of sunlight barely visible behind thick gray clouds begin to slant lower in the sky, Larry Gibson, a compact man in his mid-50s, leans against his white pickup truck. Colorful anti-coal and pro-mountain bumper stickers coat the truck's back, and Gibson watches his large, black dog, called Dog, sniff around the lot's gravel perimeter.
Gibson is parked in the campground of houses and trailers that he and some of his family's heirs formed on Kayford Mountain, W.Va., about 45 minutes southeast of Charleston. He is waiting for the tour group he has agreed to take up the mountain. They want to see for themselves how a landscape thousands of years old has changed drastically within little more than a decade.
Massey Energy Company, the West Virginia coal empire that has fast become Gibson's arch-enemy, has found a fortune in these mountains. To obtain it, the company has acquired property rights to a handful of the mountains around Gibson's. They have systematically used a concoction of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel to blow the tops off of each one in a 20-year-old practice of coal extraction called mountaintop removal mining. Unfortunately, scientists estimate that no more than 20 years' worth of coal remains within the mountain walls, rendering the practice that forever changes the face of these mountains useless within two decades.
And that's why Gibson has spent the last few years giving tours and speeches in attempts to draw attention to the relatively voiceless and forgotten region.
His family has lived on these mountains for more than 200 years, and now his 50 acres of land (including his family's cemetery) and the valuable coal rights have been valued at $450 million. He won't give it up without a fight, though, and he said he has seen death threats, shooting attempts and the hanging of one of his dogs -- all because he won't allow Massey access to the 40 seams of coal beneath his property.
On this day, Gibson watches the dark minivan winding up the gravel path toward him. Finally, they've arrived. "Sign this here. I want to keep track," he said, handing over a spiral-bound notebook. Across its pages, people have scribbled their signatures and hometowns. Some have come from as far away as the Middle East and South America.
Today, Gibson will take this small group of Sierra Club members and students from West Virginia and southeast Ohio to the top of Kayford Mountain, 45 minutes outside Charleston. They climb into his truck bed and struggle to keep upright as Gibson begins the steep drive up the mountain. Before reaching the top, though, he stops beside a cemetery, which clings to its survival.
The grass is yellowed here from two months of winter, and the land pockmarked from the instability that constant blasting on surrounding mountains brings. As the echoes of each blast reverberate through the ground, showers of rock and black shale fall on the cemetery. It's a two-sided assault on the land -- from above and below.
Gibson shakes his head as he passes over the uneven ground. Tilting gravestones mark the heads of some graves, and before many the ground sinks into itself as if sighing. Leaning over, Gibson points out a quarter-sized knick in one of the gravestones, attributing it to debris from the blasts. "They send people over here to pick all this up," he said. Sometimes, he said he believes the workers take the damaged gravestones too, which debris tends to knock over.
Perhaps being in the cemetery brings Gibson's mind to the recent mining tragedies in West Virginia that killed more than a dozen miners. "We've been sacrificing our people for years so others can have cheap energy," Gibson said with regard to the thousands of other Appalachians who also have died mining or from mining-related health problems through the years. "This needs to stop." He speaks slowly, his voice rising in anger cultivated from fighting large corporations and government officials who hear only what big money, which Gibson doesn't have, lets them hear.
Back in the truck, the group continues up the mountain. The few in the back bounce with each stone or rut the truck passes over. They laugh as they attempt to keep the eager Dog from crushing their laps as he repeatedly loses his balance.
From where Dog stands with his front legs lifted onto a spare tire, he can look out over the mountain. Through branches, glimpses of mountains once covered in trees now stare back. They've gone bald and flattened; the only thing covering their brownish dust now is mining equipment, such as the "continuous miner" that pulls coal from the mountain's seams and loads it instantly.
While some argue that mining companies will provide jobs for the region, coal researcher Buckley has statistics he said show otherwise.
"There's been a tremendous drop in the amount of employment," he said.
To illustrate, he pulls out charts that show coal production in Ohio on a strong rise from 1950 until its peak in 1970. During that same time, however, employment dropped 83 percent, due in large part to new machinery -- like the continuous miner that can be operated via remote control -- that makes human workers obsolete.
Elisa Young, a volunteer with the Sierra Club from Racine, Ohio, also finds fault with the economic-prosperity argument. "People come to this area to see the mountains," she said, adding that tourism is a prime example of other possible sources of income. Yet with this form of coal removal, the companies behind it are destroying that possibility.
Under the national Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), when coal companies take over an area, they are responsible for restoring the land once their work is complete. However, their practices often leave the ground so acidic that it can't support tree growth beyond three feet, and too unstable to sustain any development. Young cites a prison built on the flattened land of a mountaintop-removal site that earned the nickname "Sink-Sink" after its floors and walls sank into the ground.
Each mountain blast leaves a permanent scar on the land, and it's happening across West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. From the top of Gibson's mountain, the group can see only a piece of the full destruction as they look down upon the other mountains. To fully grasp it, they'd have to see the scene from the sky.
When Gibson speaks again, his words are clipped and to the point, rehearsed almost. He tells them that this mountain used to be the lowest of those around it. All that's left are brown plateaus that leave open vistas to the land that stretches out around them.
"I don't want to be rude," Gibson said, looking directly at each of them, "but if you're going to turn around and walk away from here and do nothing about this, not tell anybody what you've seen here, then I wish you had never come."
Pauline Canterberry's life used to revolve around mining, and it still does today, just in a different sense. A woman well past retirement age, Canterberry lives in Sylvester, W.Va., not far from Kayford Mountain. Her smile comes easily during most conversations, but when coal is the topic at hand, she grows serious.
And how can she not? Canterberry lost two of the most important men in her life to mining - her father and her husband. Now, the air and water where she lives have become so polluted from coal dust and waste, she's fighting for her own survival. In the past few years, she has found herself up against the Massey Coal Company and West Virginia's Division of Environmental Protection.
"We're old. We should be enjoying life," said Mary Miller, a close friend and neighbor of Canterberry.
"We should be on our rocking chairs," Canterberry added.
Instead, coal dust coats those rockers, let loose from the town's processing facility. As a young child and then woman, Canterberry saw the necessary-evil relationship coal held with her community. Her father worked in the mines to support their family, and her husband followed suit.
She remembers waiting outside the mines each day to see "who would come out dead. That used to be our lives," she said.
Then one day, when Canterberry caught wind of a disaster at the mine, she rushed to the scene to see if her then-boyfriend was OK. Canterberry waited on edge, and when she saw him walk out without any major injuries, she broke into tears of relief. He proposed at that moment, telling her, "Now I know you really love me."
Fifty-seven years later, Canterberry's husband would die of pneumoconiosis, better known as black-lung disease. Decades of inhaling coal dust in the mines ate away at his respiratory health, and he struggled to breathe for 10 years after his diagnosis.
"Mining people have always been in some respect slaves," Canterberry said. "They're quiet because they think they can't speak out. But they're the best people you'll find anywhere in the world."
Not all are quiet, though, and not all consider themselves slaves. Larry Vucelich, a recently retired miner and Ohio native, now serves as a representative for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in Bridgeport, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Wheeling, W.Va. He went from representing 500 people while working in the mines to 5,000 as a UMWA representative. His adamant support of coal is multi-layered.
On a personal level, Vucelich said that the 34 years he spent as an underground miner with the Ohio Valley Coal Company "improved my life and my family's ten-fold." The mining job he landed after his 1969 graduation enabled him to purchase a home and raise his children in comfortable conditions. Then, the coal industry was "booming" with "good pay and good benefits" for miners.
Vucelich said he also considers coal a way for the United States to lessen its reliance on foreign oil. "This is the best country in the world," he said. "We need coal to keep us strong and independent."
But most people who pit themselves against coal use believe there are alternative ways to do just that, such as relying instead on energy from solar and wind power. Vucelich, though, said he sees alternative energy, or green power, as a concept "way down the road." Besides, he added, "It (coal) was put there for us to use."
Like Canterberry and Miller, he said he considers miners a "unique breed. They risk their lives day in and day out."
But it's not only the miners who risk their lives, according to the two women. Canterberry and Miller share their backyards with a coal-processing plant that emits the very coal dust that killed Canterberry's husband.
"Nine out of 10 people around here die of cancer," she said. "You go into the schools, and the principal's desk is lined with inhalers for the students."
In West Virginia, no laws control the amount of coal dust companies can put into the air. The closest chance Canterberry and Miller have for protection is a law that states nothing can leave one's property that could damage others.
But apparently Massey isn't keeping to that rule. Eventually, Canterberry and Miller decided they had seen enough. "If you get between the sunshine and dust, it's like a kaleidoscope," Canterberry said. "It almost blocked the sun and they expected us to live in it. That's when Mary and I went on a warpath."
A few years ago, the two women began videotaping and photographing the coal dust in the air and on cars and lawns in the town. Their inventory of footage includes records of dust so thick, they could see it falling like a dark veil on cars parked next to a schoolyard full of children playing. They wrote letters to West Virginia's Division of Environmental Protection (DEP), trying to persuade them to put stricter regulations on the amount of pollutants the plant could let into the air. "But it was like we weren't even here," Canterberry said.
During that time, Miller's home dropped in value from $145,000 to $12,000. The women continued to videotape their surroundings, night and day. They even wiped their porch furniture with white towels and stored them in Ziploc bags. They wanted to be able to show lawyers, judges and anyone who would look that the dust that turned those white cloths black was also entering their lungs.
In response, the DEP and Massey representatives asked Canterberry what she was doing out at all hours of the night videotaping. "I may be an old lady, but I'm not stupid," she said.
Canterberry wasn't about to let a lack of power and money keep her from fighting for what she believes are her rights.
"It's really unfortunate that citizens of the United States have to fight so hard for their health, and, like with Larry (Gibson), to keep their heritage," said Sarah Watling, a graduate student at Ohio University. She had joined Gibson on the tour of his mountain about 45 minutes southeast of Charleston. (Gibson's guided tours of Kayford Mountain, to illustrate the impacts of mountaintop mining, were explored in Part One of this series.)
Driving through the valley towns around Sylvester, Watling shook her head in disbelief. She had recently returned from Ecuador with the Peace Corps, and said she couldn't believe that conditions so similar to what she had seen in the third-world country existed in the United States.
She was also shocked to see Marsh Fork Elementary School, a brick building with a jungle gym and swings in its front yard, sitting at the foot of a giant, off-white, cement water-tower type building. This structure holds coal and lets out substantial coal dust. Probably not coincidentally, about 90 percent of the children in the school are asthmatic.
"It's not excusable, but it's understandable in Ecuador due to the conditions there, the social infrastructure," Watling said after noting the usualness of such sights in that country. She didn't expect to see the same situation in one of the world's wealthiest countries, however.
For Canterberry and Miller, the situation has been a reality for as long as they can remember. When their lawsuit against Massey finally did reach the courts, they didn't end up feeling much more than insulted.
Canterberry said that in the coal company lawyer's closing statements, he "called everyone in Sylvester inbreeds and Mary and I 'glory seekers.' He said we couldn't tolerate it because we were old."
Miller was outraged when the same lawyer tried to shake her husband's hand after the trial because he had fought in World War II. Before turning their backs on the man, Miller looked at him and asked, "Isn't it a shame that he fought for this country and now he has to fight for his own home?"
The price of power
Elisa Young's bathroom is full of oils and books -- everything one would need either to be healthy or to learn how to be healthy. Her kitchen is much the same, stocked with organic fruits and vegetables that she buys from an independent seller. And while she does all she can to keep healthy inside, it's what's just outside her window that keeps Young's health uncertain.
It's a quiet, gray Sunday morning in Racine, Ohio, a Meigs County town set minutes away from the Ohio River near the West Virginia border. From Meigs, four power plants are visible, but none lies within the county.
That could change. Recently, county officials have begun talking about two -- and maybe even three -- new coal-fired power plants in the county.
"They're modern, clean-coal power plants," confirmed Perry Varnadoe of the Meigs County Chamber of Commerce. "They're not like the ones built 50 years ago." Varnadoe was appointed the governor's regional economic development representative for southeast Ohio in 2004.
The plants, he said, would bring 2,000 to 3,000 construction jobs and 200 to 250 jobs within the plants once they went on-line. "They'll be a lifeline for the Southern School District," Varnadoe added, referring to a Meigs County district. Because none of the other plants are within Meigs County, the county is unable to collect property tax from them. The proposed plants, however, would pay Meigs County property taxes, and the county would benefit from the resulting increases in sales taxes, as well as all the spin-off economic activities with vendors, consumer goods, etc.
"Generally the community is very enthusiastic about it from the comments I've heard," Varnadoe said.
Young, however, is not pleased. She said that opening the plants could lead to the reopening of some of the old Southern Ohio Coal mines in Meigs and Vinton counties, which probably would contaminate the clean spring on her land with acid-mine drainage.
For the hundreds of former coal-miners who live in southeast Ohio, and are now either unemployed or making less money doing other tasks, the upside to a rejuvenated coal industry in this region likely outweighs the negatives.
Few cars travel down the winding county road that twists up through the woods and around a curve past Young's farm. The only noise comes from Chavez -- the large rooster with dark silk feathers shooting from his tail -- as he patrols the yard.
Young explained that friends who brought him to her had named him King Robert, but the name didn't fit. Partially on account of the same fiery attitude that got him kicked out of the chicken coop, he became known as Chavez, after the renegade leftist Venezuelan president.
However, Chavez isn't the only rebel on the farm. Young has spent the last four years "trying to learn the system," because she wants to change it.
Her farm, which has housed her family for seven generations, overlooks the Mountaineer and Phillip Sporne power plants, neither of which are located in Meigs County. Two smoke stacks, reminiscent of those found at nuclear plants, reach into the sky, emitting thick plumes of smoke. But this smoke is relatively safe, made up of steam from the plant. It's what the plant, and others in Ohio and West Virginia, potentially let into the river that scares Young.
Next month, now that scientists have found that C-8 contaminates her district's water supply, she's being tested for the man-made chemical. C-8, or ammonium perfluorooctanate, has caused cancer and liver damage when tested on animals and has possible adverse effects on the endocrine system, according to the Little Hocking Area C-8 Study.
In burning the coal, the plants use and produce heavy metals such as mercury and lead. When the mercury escapes into the environment, it turns into methylmercury, a chemical highly toxic in mammals, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Geological Survey. People sometimes joke about not eating fish from a certain river or drinking the water, but the reality is that many Appalachian rivers do contain high amounts of methylmercury. Its greatest adverse effects occur in developing organisms, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, i.e. children, who tend to slow in development if exposed to high levels of the toxin.
The mercury levels have gotten so high, in fact, that in early January the Ohio EPA released a fish-consumption advisory. "This year, Ohio EPA has added 12 locations to the list of places where fish should be eaten no more frequently than once a month due to mercury," according to the department's press release. Among the locations are Dow Lake and the Hocking River, which (along with the Ohio River) also have elevated levels of PCB, according to the press release.
The water that reaches Young's farm is contaminated as well. She recalls a time when the farm was self-sustaining. Her grandparents lived on it then, and Young would visit during the summers from northern Ohio. "I think that's a piece of why the environmental and health issues stand out to me as a problem, because I didn't grow up here," Young said.
After her grandmother died in 2000, Young took up residence on the land. When she did, she said her energy level dropped drastically, and she noticed that many of her neighbors were dying of cancer. She rattles off a list of names and points in all directions toward their homes. That was when Young first began looking into what the power plants in her area were releasing into the air and water.
Young's farm reflects her current state of health. White paint peels off its sides, and it sits in virtual abandonment, with only a chicken coop and a few stray cats in the yard.
People ask her why she doesn't leave. If she wants to create a sustainable living environment, why not move elsewhere, where the dream could be a reality? Young shakes her head; for her, "no other place has this generational value."
When Young speaks about the farm, her voice grows high and shaky, and tears gather at the corners of her eyes. She questions spending the money to fix it up if she could lose the land to the coal industry or lose her own health to a disease such as cancer, contracted from living so close to a power plant.
IN 2002, AMERICAN ELECTRIC Power bought the town of Cheshire, Ohio, not even a 10-minute drive from Young's farm, for $20 million. House values had seen a 90 percent drop in the town, and the people reported burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and white burns on their lips and tongues after blue plumes of smoke from the plant hung over the town. When the residents signed the agreement with AEP, they signed away their rights to sue the company over any personal or property damages sustained from the emissions.
The town today is virtually empty, with sidewalks leading to wide squares of matted grass where homes once stood. On Sundays, most of the cars in the town take up spots in the church parking lot.
People in Cheshire weren't the only ones who left. Young speaks of a Native-American friend whose people had lived on the river for hundreds of years. She left too, though, not wanting to raise her children amid the contamination.
For now, Young remains on her farm. She spends her days researching other power plant injustices and trying to learn the bureaucratic ropes of agencies that should be looking out for her. She said people always call her an environmentalist, but she thinks it's simpler than that. "I just want clean air and clean water. Is that asking too much?"