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Trouble in Coal Country
Comments () | Published September 1, 2008
Maria Lambert, who lives near a mountaintop-mining site, shows samples of her water. She wrote to her congressman: “We need a voice in our government to speak for us.” Photograph by Matthew Worden

“The method of mining is dictated by the geology,” says Raney. “The coal seams are in the upper horizons of the natural geology and topography in the state—you can’t underground those seams.” ➝

Coal companies have been mining mountaintops since the 1970s; the National Mining Association says the method now accounts for about 10 percent of US coal production. During the Clinton years, says West Virginia University political-science professor Richard Brisbin, “people were just beginning to realize the nature of the injury.”

Citizens’ groups had started taking legal action, Brisbin says, but their efforts were complicated by eased restrictions during the Bush administration. In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers redefined two words in the Clean Water Act of 1977—“fill material.” The definition had previously excluded waste disposal. The rule change, first proposed by the Clinton administration, would allow fill material to include mining waste, which meant coal companies could now legally dump debris from mining sites into streams.

Mountaintop mining is cheaper than underground—it requires fewer workers and maximizes the recovery of coal. According to EPA estimates, more than 470 mountains in Appalachia have been destroyed along with 1,200 miles of streams. Every year, millions of pounds of explosives are set off in the mountains there, and the blasts are so powerful that residents say they can knock houses off their foundations.

Some coalfield residents are moving away. “They’re losing that connection to where they’re from—that connection to belonging to these mountains,” says George Davis, a Marshall University assistant professor researching citizen movements in Appalachia.

Lots of people in Appalachia are hesitant to speak out. Nearly everyone knows someone who works for a coal company, and people have lost their jobs by objecting. But as health concerns grow and jobs slip away, more residents are raising their voices.

Says waitress turned activist Maria Gunnoe: “We’re the people being sacrificed—our water, our land, our air—in the name of energy across the country.”

“All We Want Is Clean Water”

Nelson pulls up to his friend Maria Lambert’s house, a mobile home with yellow vinyl siding. A gurgling creek runs in front.

Lambert lives in Seth, about 30 miles south of the state capital, Charleston, and two hours west of the Greenbrier resort. She’s a few miles from a mountaintop-mining operation, in a hollow off Prenter Road. Her parents and grown son have mobile homes next to hers. For about a year, she and her husband, Ralph, a disabled miner, heard blasting every day around 4 o’clock.

On a snowy morning in January when she opens the door to her home—where she spends days playing with her four-year-old granddaughter—Lambert explains the odor. “We both took a shower this morning,” she says. “That’s what that is—it’s our water.”

Lambert was raised in a coal camp called Prenter. Her father worked 25 years in the mines before he retired at age 42, sick with black-lung disease. She once had a job at the camp’s company store, making sandwiches for miners. Now her 29-year-old son makes his living driving a coal truck.

That hasn’t stopped Lambert from talking about her belief that coal waste buried underground has seeped into her water. She and Ralph get their drinking water from a well behind their house because the city water lines don’t reach them. They’re convinced it’s making them sick.

Today Lambert has set out photographs on her living-room table—pictures of discolored bathtubs and toilets, rusted hot-water heaters. She’s helping organize community meetings and writing to politicians.

Until recently, she sometimes drank a gallon of well water a day. She was trying to lose weight, and that helped keep her from eating. Now she doesn’t drink it at all, but she still has to bathe in it.

There are 118 mines in Boone County, where Lambert lives, more than in any other West Virginia county. According to the West Virginia Coal Association, the county has more than 3.6 billion tons of coal reserves; its mountaintop-mining operations produced more than 13 million tons of coal in 2006. The county’s median household income is about $30,000.

Lambert remembers a blast nearly five years ago that was so loud, she looked out the window to see if her parents’ house had blown up. Her computer nearly fell off her desk. After a few more days of heavy blasts like that one, she says, there was “orange and black stuff” flowing through her water pipes. She couldn’t help but think it was related to the mining.

The mountains near Lambert’s home used to calm her. She could get on her four-wheeler, ride up the hollow, and feel in another world. She doesn’t feel that peace anymore.

Lambert started getting worried last fall after her father saw a flier for a community meeting about the water. Her mother, who’d worried for years about what was coming out of the tap, suggested they go.

At the meeting, a young environmentalist, Bobby Mitchell, talked about heavy metals that might be contaminating wells. Residents held up water samples and talked about how often they had to replace hot-water heaters and well pumps. A woman who lives near Lambert talked about losing her 29-year-old brother to a brain tumor. The woman said she had neighbors with brain tumors, too—five people in seven houses.

Other neighbors described digestive problems; many had had their gallbladders removed. Lambert talked about her thyroid problems, her dad’s thyroid cancer, her mom’s skin condition. She didn’t mention that her son and a grandson had attention-deficit disorder, a condition rampant in her hollow.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 09/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles