The Industry That Devoured Marsh Fork Hollow

If smart energy investments can rebuild a community, thoughtless ones can tear a community apart. The legacy of wasteful energy use is having a tremendous impact on communities in Appalachia today.

It is a peculiar attribute of the modern coal industry that it can both provide for and devour the communities that nourish it. The former residents of Marsh Fork, West Virginia, will tell you that the industry that sustained their town for over one hundred years is the same one that today is eating it alive. This is the result of a new type of coal mining called mountaintop removal, a process in which whole swathes of mountains are torn down to reach the coal, and whole regions are destroyed in the process. It's not your father's coal mining anymore.

Julia Bonds is a Marsh Fork grandmother whose ancestors lived there for ten generations. Now she has only fond memories of her children swimming in the creeks of her beloved "holler" to tie her to a place that is no more. Beginning in 1997, the coal dust spreading inexorably over every inch of her home, the toxics leaching into the creeks, and the constant threat of a breach in the upstream impoundment dam slowly but convincingly forced every living resident of Marsh Fork Hollow, and its adjacent communities of Packetville and Birch Hollow, to abandon their histories and homes and flee.

Julia Bonds was a child of the coal mines; her father spent his life in the mines, as did his father before him. That both of them died of black lung disease did not, perhaps surprisingly, embitter her to the thought of coal. She says that was simply the way of the mining life in the past. When asked, she will tell you she is a "coal miner's daughter" with a tone of pride.

But when she began to see the black residue in her home, on her car, and on her child, she became concerned about the mining that was literally shaving the top off of the hills a few miles from her home. It is not surprising that she began to see the impact in her home, as this type of mining chops off hundreds of acres of the hills that sheltered those West Virginia towns, pulverizing the coal so that the slightest touch stirs it up into a swirling dust cloud and storing millions of gallons of toxic blue stew behind temporary earthen dams perched tenuously above the communities.

Bonds's pleasant memory of her grandson fishing in the creek is now replaced with the memory of the day he came home commenting on the strange color of the creek that had once supported a good stock of keepers. Worse, her memories now include listening to her grandson wheezing, because he had an increase in asthma attacks, attacks that virtually disappeared after their move just five miles away to Rock Creek.

As the insults became worse, the residents of the hollows began to contemplate the simple necessity of leaving. It was not an easy decision. Their lives were bound to friends and family, their vocational prospects were limited, and they had no way to get fair-market value for their homes, since even if the coal company made them an offer, the value was lessened due to the mountaintop removal.

Ultimately, they had no choice. One by one, the families succumbed to mountaintop mining and abandoned their homes. Now the only living souls in the three hollow communities are the guards posted by the coal company.

Julia Bonds has a clear opinion about what happened to her and her community, the place where she enjoyed her neighbors, the fresh air, the clean water, and the simple life in a frenzied world. She knows the value of coal because her family mined it for generations, but that was in underground mining that did not chew up the surface. "Our feeling is that we were sacrificed," she says. "We were sacrificed for cheap energy. Well, in my book, there is nothing cheap about what happened to us."20

These are not the paranoid ravings of a woman with an ax to grind. She will show you a copy of the coal company's depopulation plan, a plan to move whole communities from their valleys, refugees from mountaintop mining. Even the company recognizes the impact of this type of mining to be incompatible with adjacent human habitation.

Bonds's view is clear. Coal can be of value. It can supply heat for the home and employment for whole communities. "But," she says, "if they can't do it without destroying whole hollers, creeks, and communities like ours, they shouldn't do it at all." Each time her house shakes from the four million pounds of explosives blown every day, she is reminded to keep working on the organization she has started in an effort to move Congress and confront presidential inaction, the Coal River Mountain Watch.

She is involved for the long haul. Her empty home still stands in Marsh Fork Hollow, and her kin are buried there. But the job of saving Marsh Fork is formidable. It pits her against powerful forces like the

Massey Coal Mining Company and its president, Don Blankenship, who turned $3 million of slashing television attacks toward politicians who opposed mountaintop removal in the West Virginia legislature before the 2006 election. He hoped to bring down those who insisted on the people's right to protect air and water, health and safety.

While the fight over protecting communities was played out as a partisan war over the rules the mines would face, it must have been disappointing to Blankenship on election night, when the good people of West Virginia turned against his PR blitz and voted to increase the number of opponents of mountaintop removal.

Julia Bonds does not believe we should shed any tears for Mr. Blankenship, not when his mining practices caused her neighbors' children to have to sleep with their clothes on when it rained in case the jury-rigged dams above their homes collapsed and the family had to make a run for it. Or when her neighbors' dinner table conversation changed from Little League games to the best escape routes out of their hollow. Or when her tight-knit community scattered to the four winds.

The electoral victory for the people of the hollows demonstrates a fundamental principle of American politics. When big-money interests can do their work in the dark, in the back rooms and corridors of power, they frequently succeed. When they are exposed to the public, as the Massey Company was in the election of 2006, their efforts are usually rejected.

The work of opposing the mountaintop mining will continue because the damage continues. According to federal agencies, mountaintop mining buried more than 72 miles of Appalachian streams between 1985 and 2001.21 Without additional protections, 2,200 square miles of forest will be eliminated, and at least 2,400 miles of streams will be wiped out or harmed by 2013 if changes are not made. The final version of the Bush administration's mountaintop removal study, however, proposed streamlining the permit process rather than protecting the streams. "This is just a rehash of what the federal agencies have been doing for the last five years, ignoring the clear scientific evidence of irreparable harm to West Virginia," said Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.22

"We deserve better than this," says Julia Bonds. Indeed, they do.

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