In one case described in this book, the presiding judge became an advocate for the termination of all mountaintop-removal mining when he was taken on a fact-finding mission by helicopter. He observed for himself the devastation of the wilderness he loved. He was a hunter and fisherman. He saw the mud-glutted streams and the sliced-off wilderness areas that can never be replaced: "mile after mile of forest-covered range, great swaths of Appalachia, in some places as far as the eye can see, are being blasted and obliterated in one of the greatest acts of physical destruction this country has ever wreaked upon itself." Once you read this book, it will probably make an advocate out of you, too.
Michael Shnayerson is a journalist for
Vanity Fair who likes to cover tough causes. In this detailed, sometimes over-detailed, chronicle, he puts two contenders on the field of play and lets us watch them locked in a titanic battle
- "locked" because neither side has yet been able to claim ultimate victory. Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, a youthful lawyer, plays David to the Goliath of Dan Blankenship, a seasoned coal company executive whose cold-hearted reprisals against union workers and shameless disregard for federal regulations could only be perpetrated in West Virginia
- "only in West Virginia" because the state has a scattered, isolated population well accustomed to doing what they're told and historically easily flummoxed by the likes of Massey Energy, America's fourth largest coal-producing company and Blankenship's employer.
Families have mostly moved away from West Virginia when confronted with the armies of earth-eating machinery and the whirlwind of coal dust that accompanies open-pit mining across the road or up the holler from their home place. But some have not been so easily cowed, and some have not moved, and some have moved in from outside to help in the struggle. Shnayerson introduces us to a handful of hardy, determined souls who are standing and fighting, with Lovett bearing their banner. We are introduced, for example, to Larry Gibson, who still lives perched on a 50-acre ancestral plot amidst the apocalyptic destruction of the mountains around him. Picture that! Well, you may have to, because for some reason the book does not contain photographs. I think this is a major weakness. It would be informative to see the rape of the land in real color, so that we can understand better what Shnayerson is telling us. It would be a counterpoint to the long, frankly boring passages about the legal wrangles which tear us away from the central message of the book: mountaintop removal must be stopped.
One main focus of the book is a school. It sits across from a coal processing plant which has been threatening for several years to build a second storage silo. Children and teachers complain of sickness – nausea, sinus and lung ailments - that remarkably disappear when kids go home for the summer, and flare up again in the fall when school is in session. They believe that dust emanating from the current silo is the cause and that the construction of a second silo would be nothing less than the death knell for the school and the community surrounding it. Independent testing, however, does not corroborate their suspicions of the toxicity levels in coal dust blown out by the processing plant – thousands of tons per year. This case is still being fought inch by inch in the federal courts, and despite the book's jacket blurb – "how a few brave Americans took on a powerful company – and the federal government – to save the land they love" - Shnayerson's book offers no happy ending, so don't expect any.
Coal River Mountain Watch – www.crmw.net - is an excellent resource for learning more about the subject matter of this book. There you can see the much-needed photographs and snippets of a new documentary about the rapacious coal-mining technique that scrapes off topsoil and subsoil and pushes it by the raw ton into rivers and onto once tree-covered hillsides.
We need coal. It's still vital to our way of life and a major export. Pit mining is dangerous and archaic. But is mountaintop removal a sane answer? These are questions that come into focus more sharply in West Virginia than elsewhere in the country because of its unique and precious, "almost heavenly" topography. Coal River is a start to understanding the issues involved.