By Hattam, Jennifer
Sierra , Vol. 88, No. 6
Deep in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, the town of Whitesville clings to life along State Route 3. Its three-block downtown is marked by empty lots, boarded-up windows, and two funeral homes, and there's scarcely a person to be seen. The outskirts seem cheerier, with laughter bouncing out of the swimming pool and across the baseball field, But in a state wracked by turmoil since it was torn out of Virginia &,ring the Civil War, even the bright spots are haunted by their past.
In the early 1900s, the coal industry sponsored baseball teams in company towns like Whitesville, which fostered competition between communities and distracted miners' attention from poor working conditions. Efforts such as these eventually failed, and by midcentury union organizing had improved the local quality of life. The Big Coal River ran strong and deep, and the Big Rock, a swimming hole just about where the pool is now, was a favorite spot for a dip. But these days the river sometimes turns black with mining sludge, and the concrete pool cracks when the landfill beneath it shifts.
Coal built Whitesville, and other towns like it throughout Appalachia, but now coal is ripping the region apart. "My people have had to live with oppression for over 130 years," says Julia Bonds, 51, whose family includes three generations of coal miners. "But this new type of mining is more aggressive than ever. The coal industry is destroying our culture and our environment."
The new type of mining, aptly called "mountaintop removal," has claimed nearly a fifth of southwestern West Virginia's peaks. Before the early 1960s, getting coal out of the ground meant sending men down into it. Then companies found that they could get at more coal, for less money, by simply tearing off the earth on top. Surface (or "strip") mining accelerated after the oil crises of the 1970s increased demand for domestic fuels, and again in the 1980s as earthmoving machines grew bigger and more powerful. With the latest removal techniques, hundreds of feet of dirt, plants, and rock above the coal seam are blasted off and dumped over the side of the mountain. This "overburden" smothers streams aim pollutes the air, and the resulting erosion has led to some of the worst flooding in state history.
In May, a study by five government agencies calculated the toll mountaintop removal has taken in the Appalachian coalfields: 724 miles of streams buried and over 300,000 acres of forests obliterated. The deforestation is expected to double over the next decade. But instead of tougher regulations, the Bush administration proposed to "streamline" the review of new mining permits. It has also revised the Clean Water Act to legalize the already common practice of dumping mountain remnants into waterways as "fill." A local bumper sticker sums up events pretty well: "I have been to the mountaintop, but it wasn't there."
Julia Bonds is fighting to end coal's ruinous reign. A former Pizza Hut waitress and convenience-store clerk, for the past five years Bonds has been the community outreach coordinator for a tiny grassroots organization, Coal River Mountain Watch. Scarcely five feet tall, with dark hair, soft features, and a preference for baggy T-shirts, leggings, and sneakers, Bonds doesn't seem very intimidating. Until she opens her mouth. "We are living with domestic terrorism from these coal barons," she told me 15 minutes into our first meeting. "And our lapdog politicians are working hand in hand with the corporations that put them in place to destroy our children's world. They think we're a bunch of ignorant hillbillies, but you don't have to be very smart to figure that one out, do you?"
Bonds spends much of her time meeting with beleaguered residents, helping them navigate the maze of permitting laws and regulatory agencies that govern mining operations. (Or, as she puts it, "educatin', motivatin', and communicatin'.") One of only three staffers at Coal River Mountain Watch, she also organizes protests, lobbies at the state capitol, and answers the constantly ringing phone. …