ON A WARM SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON, I pulled off the interstate in Charleston, West Virginia, under a billboard that read, in stark black letters:
clean, carbon neutral coal
I drove another two blocks and parked my truck next to the governor’s mansion, where, in a small rock garden, red and white begonias spelled out: hope.
Coal and hope — for a moment, I considered the rhetorical and symbolic proximity of those two words. Recently, while the shadow of climate change lengthened and the lie of free markets unraveled, I had begun to doubt the promise of either to deliver on a future I want to inhabit. No coal-fired power plant in West Virginia, nor anywhere else in central Appalachia, sequesters carbon, nor do they extract from the bituminous ore its mercury and asthma-inducing particulates. A 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office warns that U.S. carbon-capture research is still dramatically underfunded and underdeveloped. So for some time, “clean, carbon neutral coal” will exist in name only — a lie on a billboard. As for hope, even that idea had been losing, at least for me, its audacious potential, its ability to navigate the shoals of public cynicism and despair. Here, in this domestic flower bed, hope looked at best like a decorous sentiment — sweet but irrelevant, certainly no match for Big Coal.
Some years ago, Wendell Berry warned me that, to fight the coal industry, one must “accept heartbreak as a working condition.” Since then, I’ve watched coal operators dismantle one mountain after another across central Appalachia. I’ve watched them dump entire mountaintops into the valleys below, strangling and poisoning the region’s healthiest streams. I’ve watched the previous administration rewrite the Clean Water Act to make this dumping legal, and I’ve watched industry insiders take control of, then undermine, the federal agencies whose job it is to prevent such abuse. Which is to say, there’s been more than enough heartbreak to go around, and it has made me leery of anyone trading in hope and promising change.
Friends from the coasts tell me I’m too pessimistic, too doom-and-gloom. Maybe so, but for too long it seems like environmentalists around here have been caught up in some kind of circular Appalachian three-step: 1) fight the good fight; 2) lose the good fight; 3) go have a beer and take consolation in the fact that at least you fought the good fight. Over time, this story of our struggle to save these imperiled mountains starts to sound like the larger story of Appalachia, a tragedy of the commons that repeats itself with an unnerving relentlessness: industrial aggressors buy off the politicians and the police, rob the region of its wealth, then blame the people of the mountains for their poverty and stubbornness in the face of “progress.” I had come to Charleston, the center of coal country, looking for a new narrative.
In his recent book The Last Refuge, David Orr writes of the environmental movement, “The public, I think, knows what we are against, but not what we are for. There are many things that should be stopped, but what should be started?” That day last fall, under the capitol’s gilded dome, some coal field residents from southern West Virginia had gathered to offer their answer: a wind farm. They wore symbolic green hardhats and held signs that said:
truly clean and carbon neutral
Jesse Johnson, the progressive Mountain Party candidate for governor, gave a fiery speech in which he suggested we stop pulverizing and burning coal, and instead invest in carbon-composite technology. Then a bluegrass band called the Long Haul started playing, and someone up on stage said that was about right — fighting the coal industry in West Virginia is indeed a long haul.
This particular attempt to fight Big Coal began in 2006, when a group of citizen-activists called Coal River Mountain Watch teamed up with Orr to commission a study of wind currents along the top of Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County, West Virginia. WindLogics, a firm out of St. Paul, conducted the feasibility study and found strong, recurrent winds sweeping through the valleys and peaking across the tops of these close-shouldered, sprawling mountain spurs so characteristic of the southern Appalachians. Using Google Earth software, and working in alliance with the American Wind Energy Association and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the citizen-activists of Coal River Mountain Watch constructed a computer model of a wind farm that would accommodate 220 turbines. If built, these turbines could generate 328 megawatts of energy annually, enough to power more than 7 percent of West Virginia homes.
What’s more, Coal River Mountain Watch calculated that construction of the wind farm would create two hundred jobs over two years and around fifty permanent on-site maintenance jobs, which would generate $40 million in local spending over the first two years and $2 million every subsequent year. Annual county tax revenues could reach $3 million, with state revenues coming in at around $400,000. Adding the amount of coal-based energy the wind farm would displace to the tons of coal that would be left in the ground at Coal River Mountain, project coordinator Rory McIlmoil calculated that 86 million tons of carbon dioxide would be kept out of the atmosphere — truly sequestered — during the wind farm’s first twenty years. Downstream Strategies, a consulting firm out of Morgantown, would later confirm these numbers. Bottom line: more jobs, more tax revenue, less CO2, and far fewer health problems that result from contaminated water and coal dust.
There was only one snag, but it was a big one. Massey Energy, out of Richmond, Virginia, had already leased the mineral rights beneath the six thousand acres where the wind farm would stand, and Massey was indeed planning to exercise those rights by leveling most of Coal River Mountain. A spokesman for Massey issued this statement: “We encourage the Coal River Mountain Watch to do what any responsible energy producer would do: identify and acquire a site for their project and obtain the permits and infrastructure necessary to make that project happen.” There are, however, two problems with this statement. To imply, for one, that Massey is a “responsible” producer of energy represents a considerable disregard for the facts. Between 2000 and 2006, the company violated the Clean Water Act more than 4,500 times, racking up $20 million in fines from the EPA (the maximum fine could have been $2.4 billion). When security concerns were raised about some of Massey’s underground mines, CEO Don Blankenship wrote a memo to employees that read: “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.” A few months later, two miners died in a Massey mine fire caused by a buildup of flammable coal waste along a conveyer belt. Cleaning the belt might have prevented the fire, but the mine foremen were too busy running coal to stop for that.
The second, more fundamental problem with Massey’s statement is that the people who live around Coal River Mountain are not trying to become energy producers. They are trying to keep the mountain that frames and defines their communities from being blown apart. A wind farm, it turns out, looks like the best way to make that happen.
“Coal River Mountain is the last of our mountains in our community,” longtime resident Bo Webb told me at the rally. “Everyone’s life revolves around that mountain. Hell yeah, we’re fighting for it. I don’t know why the governor is so perplexed by that.” The governor in question is Joe Manchin, who had tangled with Don Blankenship before and seemed uneager to re-enter the fray. Over three thousand calls to his office in support of the wind farm had failed to move him. Thus a sense of urgency surrounded the rally. A long procession of coal field residents stepped to the mike and urged Manchin to get off the dime and rescind the Massey permits. They said they were not against coal, that their fathers and grandfathers had been underground miners, and that they were proud of that tradition. But mountaintop removal was destroying Coal River Valley. Lessie Maynor said a Massey holding pond had collapsed behind her house in 2001 and washed away “everything we had worked for, for the past forty years.” Charles Ballard said the strip mining was “messing up every damn thing we have in these mountains.” They were citizens of West Virginia, they said, and they had the right to live in peace, with clean air and clean water, and without fear of blasting and flooding. They wanted something else for Coal River Valley.
When the rest of the country thinks about southern Appalachia, it often thinks of the past — of backwardness even. That image benefits the coal industry immensely, making it much easier for companies like Massey to justify irreparable damage that would never be tolerated in, say, the Adirondacks. These West Virginians were tired of living on the receiving end of that attitude. They were tired of nineteenth-century stereotypes and nineteenth-century sources of energy. Now they had a plan, a blueprint for how to disentangle the region from the world’s most toxic industry.
It all sounded pretty impressive to me. The people of Coal River Valley were calling for a new kind of economy, one that was both socially and ecologically just. It was a more honest economy, whereby the “externalities” of doing business — the mine waste, the toxic water, the flooding — were not off-loaded on the people who, unlike Don Blankenship, actually had to live in the coal fields. At a time when 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems are being degraded by human impacts, here was a plan that maintained both the integrity and the diversity of the Appalachian Mountains. At the onset of peak oil and radical climate change, here was a plan that worked with, rather than against, the ultimate system of exchange — the economy of nature.
OUTSIDE THE COAL RIVER Mountain Watch office in Whitesville, West Virginia, Matt Noerpel hands me a motorcycle helmet and we head for Sycamore Hollow, a few miles away. It’s October, and the first fall color is coming to the poplars. We stop at the home of Bacon Brown, an elderly man who has collected nearly nine pounds of ginseng root from these hillsides since the official ginseng season began in September. On the Asian market, the herb will fetch him a tidy profit. Traditionally, many mountain families use their ginseng money for Christmas presents; unfortunately, ginseng is one more local economy that is disappearing along with these forests and mountaintops.
Beneath Brown’s carport, Noerpel unlocks two ATVs. Within minutes, we are careening along a steep trail that leads up the ridgeside. As I follow Noerpel’s long mane of red hair, my enormous Kawasaki four-wheeler leaps over fallen tree limbs and heavy cobble. Once we reach the ridgeline, we head west to the site where Massey is planning to begin mining. As we cross a wide haul road cleared for coal trucks, I see a sign warning of the blasting to come. A few miles farther on, we are speeding under unusually tall sassafras trees, and then we dip down to a small clearing where the trail, an old logging road, ends. The autumn color along the ridgetops abruptly drops off at a man-made “highwall,” a steep precipice where half of the mountain has been sliced away by explosives. We climb off our ATVs and walk to its edge, where the deciduous broadleaf forest plunges down into a cratered emptiness that looks like nothing so much as a bombing range.
A hundred feet below, the entire Brushy Fork watershed has been buried beneath one of the largest slurry impoundment ponds in the world. The black ooze called slurry, or sludge, is the toxic byproduct left over when coal is cleaned for market. The Brushy Fork pond contains 6 billion gallons of slurry, six times the amount that recently broke through a dam in Tennessee. The nine-hundred-foot wall that holds all of this slurry back is the highest dam in North America. It is also a reminder that, in fact, “cheap” energy carries a very high cost that most Americans do not recognize because it is hidden in poor, remote places like the coal fields of Appalachia.
At the end of his influential book Collapse, Jared Diamond lists what he considers the twelve most serious environmental problems we face, the ones that would most likely cause a nation to topple. Of these twelve, ten — deforestation, species loss, erosion, coal-burning, harm to underground aquifers, misuse of sunlight, toxic chemicals, alien species, global warming, and overconsumption — can be tied directly to mountaintop removal strip mining. A wind farm, by contrast, could begin ameliorating every one of them. There is certainly still an environmental impact, and there is some troubling evidence suggesting that bat populations are declining in some places because of wind turbines (bats like to mate at high altitudes). That said, I would direct wind critics to its alternative: this slurry pond and the miles of leveled mountains and toxic mine sites all around it.
I look up at the ridgelines beyond the slurry pond and try to imagine them covered with wind turbines — 220 of them staggered along the peaks and side spurs of Coal River Mountain for thirty-six miles. A mere 267 acres would have to be cleared for the turbines, compared to the 6,450 acres that would be lost to mountaintop removal, and with a wind farm, the nine miles of streams that would be buried by mountaintop removal would remain healthy and full of life. I decide the tall white turbines would look quite elegant spinning slowly above the treeline. They would stand like sentinels, guarding the mountain from bulldozers and trucks carrying explosives.
A few days before my visit, Noerpel had done some independent research at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and found that Massey, in its rush to start mining up here, had not received approval for revisions to its permit. The understaffed DEP — whose job, in effect, Noerpel was doing — issued a statement that any blasting would be illegal. Coal River Mountain had been granted, in Rory McIlmoil’s words, “a stay of execution.”
Even if Massey did start blasting along this ridgeline, the majority of the strongest wind is farther southeast. And while Massey has also leased the mineral rights beneath that part of the mountain, there is still time to find a developer to turn that wind into energy and profits. But, as Noerpel says, “Once Massey Energy gets started, they’re hard to stop.” He lets out a rueful laugh. “They’re hard to stop anyway.”
I DROP MATT NOERPEL off at the modest Coal River Mountain Watch office and follow Coal River Road along a narrow valley floor framed by steep ridgelines. The road ends at the home of Lorelei Scarbro, the community coordinator for the Coal River Wind Project. Scarbro lives in a modest wooden house built by her late husband and surrounded in part by a small orchard they planted together. She wears her graying hair cut short and she doesn’t seem much given to small talk. People around here know and trust her. Still, organizing isn’t easy in a place where Massey holds sway and where the air is thick with intimidation; some activists I’ve talked to say they have received anonymous calls warning that a family member employed by Massey might be fired if the activism doesn’t stop.
Scarbro got started by making a large batch of apple butter in a hundred-year-old copper pot and taking jars of it door to door. Soon there was enough support for the wind farm to begin holding meetings in Rebecca Chapel, the same small church Robert Kennedy visited in 1968.
Scarbro distills her organizing goal down to this: “We’re trying to save the community.”
Her own property borders Coal River Mountain and sits right below the ridgelines that Massey Energy is proposing to flatten. This rolling land was handed down through her husband’s family, many of whom are buried in the hillside cemetery you can see from Scarbro’s front porch. Up behind the cemetery rises Pond Knob, one of the highest ridges on Coal River Mountain. It would generate the most megawatts of wind energy, and it also holds the greatest lodes of coal. Like many deep miners, Scarbro’s husband died from black lung after working thirty-five years underground. Now Lorelei Scarbro worries that she could develop silicosis if Massey starts blasting apart the thick layers of sandstone — the “overburden” — that lie between the top of the mountain and the thin seams of coal below.
The off-site damage caused by mountaintop removal strip mining is enormous. A recent EPA study found that 95 percent of streams near surface mines had been degraded and contaminated by sedimentation and the leaching of heavy metals. Many mountain families rely on private wells for their drinking water, and many of those are cracked and poisoned by the blasting. It’s not uncommon, Scarbro told me, for her neighbors who live around active mining to find black water running through their taps. And to make matters worse, coal companies are allowed to inject mining waste laden with heavy metals into old underground mines, which many suspect is seeping into the water supply (the EPA recently denied this, even while admitting to having done no research into the matter). Highly abnormal levels of kidney failure have been reported throughout the community of Prenter Hollow, just west of Scarbro’s place; an eight-year-old child developed a kidney stone, and a sixteen year old died of cancer. The DEP denied that there had ever been underground injections of mine waste in that community until Bobbie Mitchell of Coal River Mountain Watch produced a document to the contrary. When someone from the DEP asked Mitchell where he found such a document, Mitchell replied, “Your office.”
All of this often leads outsiders to ask the question that makes Scarbro angriest: Why don’t you move?
The simplest answer is that, once mountaintop removal begins, those who live around it can’t move because their property loses nearly all of its value. But the question is insulting and condescending on a deeper level. It implies that the culture of Appalachia, so rooted in a sense of place, is of little value compared to cheap energy. Standing beside her late husband’s headstone, under a large chestnut oak, Scarbro says, “We mountain people feel a connectedness to the land. It’s a survival instinct. It’s hard to explain that to people who are not attached to the place where they live.”
The question shouldn’t be, Why don’t you move?, but What kind of economy will preserve this community?
The answer, I think, can be found right here, where the watersheds of Appalachia could serve as a model for a new economy. By its very nature, a watershed is self-sufficient, symbiotic, conservative, decentralized, and diverse. It circulates its own wealth over and over. It generates no waste and does not “externalize” the cost of “production” onto other watersheds, other streams and valleys. In a watershed, all energy is renewable and all resource use is sustainable.
The watershed economy is the exact opposite of a strip mine. It purifies air and water, holds soil in place, enriches humus, and sequesters carbon. That is to say, a watershed economy improves the land and thus improves the lives of the people who inhabit that particular place. It is an economy based not on the unsustainable, shortsighted logic of never-ending growth, which robs the future to meet the needs of the present, but rather on maintaining the health, well-being, stability, and conviviality of the community. To paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, the watershed offers us an operating manual we should have been reading long ago.
AFTER LEAVING Lorelei Scarbro’s, I pass a barn along Coal River Road, where a fading metal sign reads: prove you are against coal mining. turn off your electricity. It doesn’t surprise me, nor does it surprise me that some of the more visible voices of Coal River Mountain Watch have received death threats and encountered other forms of intimidation (A sign on Scarbro’s door reads, warning: trespassers will be shot. survivors will be shot again.) To many living outside the Appalachian coal fields, blowing the top off a mountain seems ludicrous, an act of industrial aggression wholly lacking in subtlety or nuance. But things aren’t that simple in communities where most jobs come from coal. In Raleigh County, some people feel that to call for the end of strip mining is to take food from their children’s mouths. They become angry, and the industry only stokes their belief that environmentalists are to blame for declining jobs and persistent poverty.
One of the more inspiring aspects of the wind farm proposal is that it has the potential to break the long and frustrating impasse in the jobs-versus-environment debate. In addition to the construction and maintenance jobs, the wind farm could potentially bring far more mining jobs to Coal River Mountain. While turbines staggered along its ridgetops would stave off mountaintop removal, a highly mechanized form of mining that requires few workers (less than 1 percent of West Virginia’s employment comes from surface mining), there would remain the opportunity to extract the region’s low-sulfur coal through underground mining, which could create far more jobs.
“We’re not telling them they can’t mine,” Bo Webb told me. “We’ll put the windmills on top, they can mine coal underground, and everybody wins, right?” It would seem so.
The problem, from the coal operator’s perspective, is that if too many people see wind turbines spinning across the peaks of Coal River Mountain, they might stop believing the industry’s hundred-year-old canard that coal is the region’s only hope. In the forty-five years since Lyndon Johnson stood on a miner’s porch to welcome him into the Great Society, central Appalachia’s poverty rate has barely moved from 30 percent, the highest rate in the nation. Historian Harry Caudill used to say that poverty was eastern Kentucky’s only tourist industry. In February of this year, ABC’s Diane Sawyer took her viewers on that tour once again. It was the most watched episode of 20/20 in five years; Americans apparently like poverty tours — the trashed-out trailers, the mothers and miners hooked on painkillers, the kids with bad teeth. But what wasn’t on display, because it is harder to find and to film, is the systemic cause of that poverty — namely, a single industry that has dominated the region for a century and fought every attempt to raise the region’s standard of living. Central Appalachia has stayed poor because it was made to stay poor by an industry that broke unions, bought off politicians, and despoiled the land and water.
Thus the potential of the wind farm reaches far beyond Coal River Mountain, because it could finally lay to rest Big Coal’s false promises by offering a more compelling future — a future where jobs are not based on a finite resource, they do not cause black lung or black water, and they contribute to the solution, not the cause, of the climate crisis. After all, once Sweden decided to abandon a carbon-based economy, its GDP began to grow three times as fast as ours because of investment in alternative energy. Van Jones, special advisor for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and author of The Green Collar Economy, has shown that “we can fight pollution and poverty at the same time.” In Oakland, he helped create entry-level jobs for poorer people that had them performing energy audits and improving energy efficiency in homes. While replacing coal with wind and solar power is obviously crucial, Jones points out that “the main piece of technology in a green economy is a caulk gun.”
Or a shovel. Patrick Angel, who heads up the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, has called for a massive tree-planting effort across all of the abandoned mine land throughout the mountains. Fast-growing willow trees could be planted and harvested for biofuels, while slower growing hardwoods could support a sustainable forestry movement while also contributing to the emerging carbon-credit market. Now that the dream of corn ethanol has passed, other abandoned mine sites could be planted with a more promising biomass such as switch grass, a high-yield perennial that thrives on marginal land.
What about mounting solar panels on south-facing valley fills, of which Appalachia has plenty? Rory McIlmoil has done some computations and figures that 20 percent of West Virginia’s energy could come from thirty-thousand acres of barren mine land fitted out with photovoltaics. Energy from those panels, coupled with the wind energy from the mountaintops, could be fed into a direct-current “smart grid” so that the region’s sources of energy become radically decentralized, along with the profits from that energy. Then thuggish corporations like Massey Energy would no longer wield so much power or cause so much havoc and heartbreak.
Still, change comes slow to coal country. On the same November day that the United States elected a new president who had made renewable energy a fundamental part of his campaign, West Virginia governor Joe Manchin easily won re-election as well. Days later, Massey began blasting near the ridgetop where Matt Noerpel had taken me four-wheeling.
Bo Webb lives in the valley below. Webb, who served as a Marine in Vietnam, sat down and started writing a letter to President Obama. “As I write, I brace myself for another round of nerve-wracking explosives being detonated above my home,” Webb began. He said he was out of options. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned a prior court ruling that required thorough environmental impact studies on land permitted for mining, and on his way out the door, George W. Bush had overturned a rule prohibiting mining around streams.
“I beg you to re-light our flame of hope and honor,” Webb wrote the president, “and immediately stop the coal companies from blasting so near our homes and endangering our lives. As you have said, we must find another way than blowing off the tops of mountains.”
On March 24, two weeks after Webb sent his letter to President Obama, a seismic wave rolled across Appalachia, and it had nothing to do with explosives. The Environmental Protection Agency, in an abrupt reversal of policy, announced that it would re-examine all mine permits that might violate the Clean Water Act — including almost all the permits on Coal River Mountain. In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Lisa Jackson, the new head of the EPA, wrote that she had “considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams.”
When I saw the headline “EPA Signals Mining Crackdown” in the Lexington Herald-Leader, the words almost didn’t make sense. They had really done it. The activists of Appalachia had actually beaten back Don Blankenship and opened a clearing for a serious consideration of wind development. It was by no means a final victory; this battle won’t end quickly or cleanly. But more good news came on March 31, when U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin issued an injunction that voided certain valley fill permits and blocked the Army Corps of Engineers from issuing new permits for valley fills in southern West Virginia. The message was clear: the Corps was finally going to have to answer to someone other than coal operators. Suddenly, that four-letter word planted in Joe Manchin’s flowerbed back in Charleston seemed not so frivolous. It was beginning to look like it might hold its own against the forces of Big Coal. It might even prevail.
Forty-two years ago, Wendell Berry pondered the concept of hope while camping in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, which the Army Corps of Engineers was then threatening to dam. “A man cannot despair,” Berry concluded, “if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.” To imagine — it is perhaps the most powerful moral force we posses. It maps a future that is worth finding, a place where we want to dwell. Then it calls us to enact that vision. It could happen on a mountaintop in West Virginia. It could happen in the heart’s own private landscape. It could happen.