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Trouble in Coal Country
Comments () | Published September 1, 2008
Larry Gibson owns 50 acres on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia that sit on 39 seams of coal. He lives in a tiny solar-powered cabin at the top of his mountain with no running water. He says the land is worth millions, but he won’t sell. Photograph by Matthew Worden

But a direct link is hard to prove. West Virginia isn’t known for its healthy habits: The state has the nation’s second-highest obesity and smoking rates. And lots of people have spent years in the mines. When epidemiologists research health-related “clusters”—cases suspected of being related—they often find that the apparent association disappears.

“It’s never quite as simple as it looks,” says Tee Guidotti, chair of George Washington University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. “There are very often underlying risk factors that are at play in the community, all of which have to be examined.”

Patty Sebok didn’t realize how much went into an epidemiological study when she asked Celeste Monforton, a research associate in public health at GW, for help. Monforton, who used to work in mine safety, was sympathetic to Sebok’s struggle. She started asking questions: How long had the people with brain tumors lived on their property? What type of tumors did they have? When were they diagnosed?

She’d give Sebok guidance, she said, but she couldn’t do a study herself. She didn’t have the resources—including a hydrologist, geologist, and statistician. She’d need to investigate the water in other mining communities, too, for comparison.

“I’d love to have the money to really get to the bottom of it,” she says. “The question is who would pay it.”

What Happened to the Mountains?

Night in the coal fields is pitch-black. To get to Maria Gunnoe’s house, Chuck Nelson pulls into a long, muddy drive and parks when the road ends at a creek. He walks across a bridge and follows the train tracks before walking up a hill to a small ranch-style house.

At night the mountains loom in silence, and every day there are earth-shaking blasts over the ridge line. Since the coal companies began mountaintop mining several years ago, Gunnoe, the 39-year-old activist, decided she wasn’t going to sit back and allow the destruction. She was proud that her father and grandfather were coal miners, but this kind of mining was different—they were taking the tops of mountains off, not digging underneath them.

Gunnoe has testified in court against the practice despite physical threats from men working at nearby mining sites. “It’s bad because her kids got to go to school around here,” says Nelson.

A friend of Gunnoe’s 12-year-old daughter was forbidden to visit their house. In coal country, Gunnoe and Nelson are considered “extremists.” For protection, Coal River Mountain Watch, one of the groups Nelson works with, keeps its office doors locked if someone is working alone.

In Gunnoe’s garage, an old TV set plays live video feeds of her house. One of Gunnoe’s dogs was shot by a disgruntled miner, she believes.

“Right here is an aerial photo of my home,” she says, pointing to a picture of a small house tucked into a hillside. Over the ridge, there are no trees, just a moonscape—holes in the earth as far as the eye can see: “That was called Island Creek Mountain.” She points to a ridge line where she and fellow activists stopped one valley from being filled. But Gunnoe can’t keep up—she says she saw about 40 mountaintop-mining permits listed in the local paper last week.

“This place was paradise,” she says. “They’ve turned it into hell.”

Maria Gunnoe’s property has been flooded nine times since coal companies started blasting near her home in 2000. In 2003, the tiny creek that flows down from the mountains grew into a 70-foot-wide wall of water.

“It sounded like a train coming with ten more behind it,” she says.

In heavy rains, Gunnoe and her family go to sleep dressed. The time it takes to put on shoes can make a difference between life and death. During the 2003 flood, the Gunnoe family was trapped in the house for 15 hours. When the water subsided, they found their front yard had washed away.

Gunnoe has lived in this modest house all her life—she left only to attend college—and her grandfather lived there decades before that. Southern West Virginia has always been prone to floods, but not like this.

After the flood in 2003, Gunnoe followed the stream up the hollow to see where all that water had come from. Close to the stream’s headwaters, her path was newly blocked by a big wall of rock and dirt. “I had no idea what was going on,” she says.

Gunnoe had discovered a valley fill, waste from mountaintop mining that “fills” the space between two mountains. SouthWings, a nonprofit conservation organization, flew her over the mining site. Gunnoe couldn’t believe her eyes. Behind her home, 1,100 acres of mountains had been stripped. She could see the fill and two sediment ponds. “The drainage for this entire hollow is coming off of a mining operation,” she says.

Gunnoe didn’t think the flooding was an act of God, as mine engineers like to say; she believed it was manmade.

Bill Raney, head of the West Virginia Coal Association, says that those who think mountaintop mining is destroying the environment need to take a closer look.

“The fellows that are doing that kind of mining grew up in the vicinity of where they’re mining—they’re not going to do anything to affect the streams they fished in as young men,” Raney says. “They’re certainly not going to do anything to affect the mountains they hunted on.”

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