Revisiting The Appalachian Coalfield PDF Print E-mail
Deep Down / Sunday, 03 January 2010 16:44

by Builder Levy (accompanies photo collection)

What began in 1968 as a ten-day trip became fourteen years of visiting and photographing in coal mines,miners' homes, and communities in the hills and "hollers" of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and western Pennsylvania. I was attracted by a rich cultural heritage that included the rejection of British colonial rule, support of abolitionism, and the collective struggle of coal miners since the late nineteenth century to make life better for themselves, their families, and the American working people.

With the help and encouragement, in 2002, of a commission from the Appalachian College Association, followed by an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship in 2004, I have begun to revisit the Appalachian coalfields. I have been looking at mountaintop removal mining, slurry impoundments, and other coal industry practices and developments to see how they are affecting the communities in the surrounding valleys and hollows. My primary focus continues to center on the lives of the people and their enduring humanity, but now more than ever on their mountains, whose fate affects them so intrinsically.


Mountaintop removal mining site, southern, West Virginia, 2004. The coal companies are able to get more coal faster and cheaper by blasting off the tops of mountains. The blasted top, called "overburden", full of chunks of rock and pulverized rock (containing dissolvable poisonous heavy metals) is bulldozed over the mountainside into the valley where it is called "valley-fill." The exposed coal, is then scooped out with giant mechanized shovels or draglines. Once the top seam of coal is removed, the blasting process may be repeated (as many as 6 to 8 times to reach successive coal seams. Along with clearcutting that usually preceeds it, mountaintop removal mining increases the probability and intensity of flooding in the communities in the valleys below. (according to the Office of Surface Mining, US Geologic Survey and Department of Environmental Protectionstudies). By conservative estimates, more than 1,200 miles of streams have been affected and 350 square miles of mountain land destroyed by MTR mining in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.


Blasting holes and demolition blasting crew on mountaintop removal mine site, Red Fox Surface Mine, Bluestone Coal Corporation, Keystone, McDowell County, West Virginia, 2004. Each blast-hole is made by a blast-hole drill. The holes may be as deep as 60 feet, are 6 inches in diameter and are spaced about 10 feet apart. There may be ten blast-holes or 90 for any given blast, depending on what is required. Each hole is filled with AMFO - ammonium nitrate (fertilizer) and (diesel) fuel oil. The typical total blast uses about 40,000 pounds of AMFO, ten times the amount Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City Federal building. After the holes are filled, blasting caps - detonators - are packed into each hole and then strung together with a long orange fuse. Once the blasting loosens and breaks up the rock it is loaded into trucks and dumped, or bulldozed over the side of the mountain as valley fill


Blasting, Premium Energy/Mingo Logan Surface Mine, Gilbert, Mingo County, November, 2002. About 2500 pounds of ammonium nitrate sprayed with diesel oil was detonated in this mountaintop removal mining blast.


Preparation Plant on Mountaintop Removal Mine Site, southern West Virginia, November 2002. The coal companies are able to get more coal faster and cheaper by blasting off the tops of mountains. The blasted top, called "overburden", full of chunks of rock and pulverized rock (containing dissolvable poisonous heavy metals) is bulldozed over the mountainside into the valley where it is called "valley-fill". The exposed coal, is then scooped out with giant mechanized shovels. Once the top seam of coal is removed, the blasting process may be repeated (as many as 6 to 8 times to reach successive coal seams.


Dakota Mining Co., Cazy, Boone County, May 2004. Coal production in the Appalachian coalfields will probably double in the next twenty years, according to Davitt McAteer (Director of the Appalachian Institute and Coal Impoundment Project for the National Technology Transfer Center, both at Wheeling Jesuit University). Here a new underground mine, not yet in production. is being set up.


Brushy Fork coal impoundment, Marfork Coal Company, Raleigh County, West Virginia, 2004. (Aerial view) There are more than 713 coal refuse impoundments in the United States, most in West Virginia and Kentucky. In 1972 the bulkhead of one such coal waste lake broke, releasing millions of gallons of black, poisonous slurry down Buffalo Creek Hollow, killing 125 people, injuring more than 1,000, and leaving 4,000 homeless. On October 11, 2000, in Inez, Martin County, Kentucky, a Massey Energy coal impoundment broke through the ground, flooding a worked-out mine below and pouring 250 million gallons of slurry into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. The river flooded over its banks, covering backyards and local roads, ruining property, killing the fish, and contaminating community water supplies for 30 miles. More than 900 feet in height and permitted to hold more than 8 billion gallons of coal slurry, the Brushy Fork impoundment near the town of Whitesville has been listed as a "high hazard potential" by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.


Clark Branch coal refuse impoundment, Second Sterling Corporation, Keystone, McDowell County, West Virginia, 2004. Sitting above the town of Keystone, this impoundment is permitted to hold more than a billion gallons of coal slurry.


Coal Truck 18 wheeler, Brookside, Harlan Cty, KY 2002. Because they are paid by the the ton of coal delivered, rather than an hourly wage, the truck drivers will often drive as fast as they can, sometimes causing serious accidents.


Horace Robinson's Photo Collection, Dorothy, Boone County, May 2004. All the photographs in Mr. Robinson's collection were taken in Dorothy where he himself was born and lived almost all of his life. Horace is a retired independent coal mine operator. He said he had done conventional pillar mining. He explained how they always pulled the pillars, causing the ceiling to collapse, and then shot the drift-- blasted closed the entry opening, before leaving a mine. If an old mine is left intact it will fill up with water. At some point the water will come out. There are an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines throughout Appalachia (according to Davitt McAteer, Director of the Appalachian Institute and the Coal Impoundment Project, both atWheeling Jesuit University)



Floodsided Singlewide, Shadywood Subdivision, Pie, Mingo County, June 13, 2004: Jamie Wolford's single-wide mobile home was flooded and tipped over by the water gushing down the mountainside and overflowing creek during a rainstorm on June 4th. A chain-link fence was ripped out and washed down more than 400 feet from the last home. Before the mountaintop is removed for strip mining, its irreplaceable hardwood forest is clear-cut by timber companies or others contracted by the coal companies. The "valley-fill" pollutes and clogs streams, creeks and rivers. The strip-mined mountains, whose tops were once filled with trees, can no longer hold the water. During heavy rains, the water goes gushing down the mountain causing mudslides, clogging and blocking of culverts, overflowing silt ponds, overflowing creeks, streams, flooding roads, homes, businesses, communities, and towns in the valleys surrounded by these stripped mountains.


Magnolia Gardens, After Flooding, North Matewan, Mingo County, June 13, 2004. Volunteer firemen and Red Cross volunteers helping flooded out people from Magnolia Gardens, a low-income government housing development in North Matewan. There had been heavy rainstorms intermittently over a two-week period in Mingo County. After the last very heavy storm on Saturday afternoon and evening of June 12th, the Magnolia Gardens homes were flooded. The fire chief evacuated the residents from their homes as of 9:00 PM, June 12, until a full safety check could be conducted and the water and mud could be cleaned out of the streets using heavy machinery. The power was turned off. Residents were given approximately 20 minutes each, escorted by Red Cross workers or firemen to take out a few possessions on June 13, 2004.


Clear-cut timber on a mountaintop removal mining site, southern West Virginia, 2004.


Volunteer Firemen & Women, Magnolia Gardens, North Matewan, Mingo County, The morning of June 13, 2004. The volunteer fire department was out at Magnolia Gardens through the night of June 12th into the morning of June 13th. Captain Bill Stratton, center, with his wife Cathy and Patty Clark on the right, Cindy Sipple, the fire chief's wife on the left and Jamie Meade sitting on the truck.


Alysa Estep, Litton "Holler," Chattaroy, Mingo County, June 12, 2004. The flood waters had ripped up the creek culvert, ripped out part of the chain-link fence, and flooded the next door neighbor's trailer behind Alysa's grandfather's house on May 30th. Alysa's grandfather, James Gauze talked about the timbering 300 feet up the mountain behind his house and at the top of the holler: "For about a year, they've been hauling out five to six truckloads of logs a day."


James Gauze with his granddaughters Tyshira Joplin (in the chair) and Alysa Estep, and Josh McCoy, the next door neighbor's child, Litton "Holler", Chattaroy, Mingo County, June 12, 2004.

Mr. Gauze, relaxing on his porch after having spent the morning cleaning up and carting away the debris left from the flooding creek behind his house. The state subsequently bulldozed the creek out to make it wider and deeper. When I spoke to Mrs. Gauze by phone almost a year later, she told me that the she is worried that if they get heavy rains again they could get even worse flooding. There is nothing left to hold the water on the mountains and nowhere for the water to go. James Gauze is a Vietnam veteran and a disabled miner - he had been pinned by a continuous miner (machine) while pulling a cable.


Rutherford "Holler", North Matewan, Mingo County, June 13, 2004. There had been strip-mining on the mountain at the top of the 'holler'. It was after the last of the two weeks of intermittent heavy rainstorms that the creek along the side of the road overflowed and flooded, wrecking a few of the creek bridges.


Curtis Phillips, Jr. and Lowell Blankenship on the Steps, Rutherford "Holler", North Matewan, Mingo County, June 13, 2004. Elizabeth Deskins and her son Thomas Huddle, Jr. sit on the porch. There are three abandoned mines always leaking water down from the mountain behind the house. A drainage ditch usually collects the water and protects the house. During the rainstorm it flooded. Ms. Deskins' grandson-in-law, Curtis, and his friend Lowell dug a channel to divert the flooding drainage ditch through an empty lot into the creek in front to prevent the house from being flooded


Family in Garage, Conley "Holler", Belo, Mingo County, June 11, 2004. Henry Ooten, daughter-in law Freda Spence, her children (Henry's grandchildren) Tyler and Rachell Spence sit in the Spence garage. Henry and his wife Allene had just sold their house and temporarily moved into their son's garage until the doublewide mobile home they were going to buy would be ready to be delivered. Originally, the doublewide was to have been delivered in a few weeks, but the road to their new site was destroyed by the flood waters on Sunday May 30. In addition, the Conley "Holler" (road) was damaged to the extent that it would not be possible to bring in a doublewide for quite some time, if ever. Undeterred, the Ootens decided, since this photo was made, to have a new house built from scratch.


Soldiers on Flood Relief Duty, Delbarton, Mingo County, June 11, 2004. The 1092nd Combat Engineer Batallion of the West Virginia Army National Guard had just returned from Iraq where they had been stationed for a year. Not home more than two months, they were recalled for flood relief duty in Mingo County. Steven Bliss (with helmet) had returned to his job at UPS, working in stock, hoping to work his way up to driver. Garett Michaels (left rear) is returning to University of West Virginia as an ROTC sophmore, hoping to complete his education and become a security specialist. Also seated are Jon Littleton, right rear, Jeff Britton, front right and Jim Garland front left.


Donna Stover and her Daughter Laura Beth Stover, Clear Creek, Boone County, May 2004. The Department of Environmental Protection was holding a permit hearing at the Clear Fork Elementary School about Island Fork Coal Corporation's mountaintop removal mining on the mountain above and in back of Donna Stover's and several other families' homes. Ms. Stover's home and property is being threatened by the daily blasting that has been continuing for the last two years as part of ongoing mountaintop removal mining operation.


Demonstration Against Massey Energy Corporation, Charleston, West Virginia, May 18, 2004. On the occasion of Massey Energy's annual shareholders' meeting at the Mariott Center, a demonstration was held to protest the corporation's treatment of the environment and the communities being affected by their mountaintop removal mining. . The United Mine Workers held a meeting a the Mariott Center in Charleston simultaneously to protest Massey's anti union and anti community practices. The organizations participating in the demonstration included Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club, Stanley Heirs Foundation (of Kayford Mountain), Mountain Justice, and others. In the foreground are activists, left to right, Tonya Adkins, Larry Gibson, Judy Bonds, and Janice Nease. In back on the left side are Sue Daniels and Nik Jones. Massey Energy is the number one coal producer in Appalachia.


Joan Linville and Maria Gunnoe, Charleston, West Virginia, May 18, 2004. This demonstration was held during the annual shareholders' meeting of Massey Energy Corp at the Mariott Center. On June 17, 2003, the creek bridge to Ms. Gunnoe's home in Bob White, Boone County, .was destroyed by a mudslide and flooding of the creek. The mudslide covered and ruined several other structures on her family farm. She points to the mountaintop removal mining that has been going on just upstream from her property since 2000 as the cause of the flooding and mudslide. A couple of miles away in Van, also in Boone County, an abandoned mine leaks water, continually, down the mountain behind Ms. Linville's, home. She lives in fear that the slate dump left on the mountain by the Island Creek Coal Corp. will come down on her home. She also lives with the fear that the abandoned mine on the mountain above may one day blow out, burying her house with debris and flooding it with water.


Anti Massey Energy (Coal Co.) demonstration, during Massey's annual Shareholder's meeting, Charleston, WV. 2004.


Pauline Canterberry's Family Photos, Sylvester, Boone County, May 2004. Pauline was born in 1930 in Stanaford #4 camp near Beckley . At age 10 her family moved to Keith, a coal camp outside of Whitesville. At eleven, to be able to buy things for herself, she had a route in Whitesville, selling the Charleston Daily Mail. During high school she worked as a clerk at the Whitesville Dollar General Store where she remained upon her graduation, eventually becoming the store's manager. Her husband, whom she married in 1948, was a coal miner and decorated WW II veteran. He had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was captured and spent five months in a German prisoner of war camp, and survived a fifteen day forced march to Berlin. He died of Black Lung disease in 1991. Pauline and her friend and neighbor, Mary Miller and other residents of Sylvester have been fighting to get Massey Energy to control and limit the amount of coal dust that is constantly coating their homes from its recently expanded Elk Run stoker plant, and uncovered conveyors. Although the Sylvester residents have won some legal battles in court, and forced the coal company to put a protective plastic dome over the coal stockpiles, Elk Run (a Massey subsidiary) continues to operate and expand. Massey has been buying out and buying up every available home near their operation so that they could expand with impunity. Ms. Canterberry said of Massey Energy, "It seems like they want to expand us all out of the "holler" and make it into one big stockpile of coal."


Nathan Coleman, in his first grade class on the first day of school, Bartley Elementary School, Bartley, McDowell County, West Virginia, August, 2004. In McDowell County, mountaintop removal mining, timbering, including clear-cutting, and underground mining, which is now seeing a resurgence, are producing a tremendous amount of wealth, but most of that wealth leaves the county, currently one of the poorest in the nation.


Bartley Elementary School, Bartley, McDowell County, West Virginia, August 2004. In June 2005 Bartley Elementary School was closed. Several other county schools have been or will be closed as well.


Americore (now called Lifebridge) workers, Caretta Community Center, Caretta, McDowell County, West Virginia, 2003.


Bartley Mine Disaster Memorial, Bartley, McDowell County, West Virginia, 2004.


Toby Moore, Eastern Coal Co., Pike Cty, KY, 1970  Thirty-six years ago,when I made this portrait of a  miner on his lunch break, it was my first time inside a mine, and I forgot to ask him for his name.  In 2003 when I revisited Chattaroy, Mingo County, where I had lived for two consecutives summers, in 1971 and 1972, I  found someone who recognized his old friend, Toby Moore, now deceased, from one of the photographs in my book.


Keeling Miner, Wolf Creek Colliery, Lovely, Martin Cty., KY 1971.


Brenda Ward, U.S. Steel no. 50 Mine, Pinnacle, Wyoming County, West Virginia, 1982.


Janice Molineau, state mine inspector, Caretta Mine, McDowell County, West Virginia, 2003  Ms. Molineau is the only woman and was the only African American state mine inspector in West Virginia, until a few months ago when a Black man was also hired.  Janice Molineau   worked  as an underground coal miner for nine years before becoming a state underground mine inspector, which she has been for the last fifteen years (as of 2006).


Lucious Thompson and his granddaughters, Destiny Clark and Delena Brooks, Tom Biggs Hollow, McRoberts, Letcher County, Kentucky, 2002. Born on July 21, 1943, in Jenkins, Letcher County, Kentucky, Lucious Thompson worked in the mines for 19 years. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968, serving 14 months in Korea and two months in Vietnam. Before becoming a miner, he worked as a Kentucky Power lineman, and a hospital orderly. When he retired from the mines in 1985, he worked on a road construction crew. The Teco Coal Company began mountaintop removal mining on the mountain above his doublewide trailor home. The blasting caused the cinder-block foundation to crack. Sometimes twice a-day, the blasting caused pictures to fall off the wall, everything to shake and a separation of the new addition from old trailer mobile home, causing leaks when it rained. Having finished extracting what seams of coal it could, Teco has moved on to another part of the mountain (closer to the main road and the post office). Mr. Thompson is an activist with the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.


Delisia Clark and Delena Brooks (with Bicycle) Tom Biggs Hollow, McRoberts, Letcher County, KY 2002.


Coal Camp, near Grundy, Buchanon Cty., VA 1970.

©2005 Builder Levy

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