"What the coal companies are doing to us and our mountains," said Bonds when she and I first met years ago, "is the best kept dirty little secret in America."
Now the secret is out. Coal companies have obliterated the summits of scores of mountains scattered throughout Appalachia, and more and more folks like Judy Bonds are decrying the environmental and social fallout of what some refer to as strip mining on steroids.
Not only is mountain topping less labor intensive than underground mining, it is also more efficient and profitable than the older form of surface mining, in which the operator stripped away the horizontal contours of a mountainside as one might peel an apple. So fast has the practice spread that there's no accurate accounting of the area affected, but surface mining in general has impacted more than 400,000 acres (1,600 hectares) in this four-state Appalachian region including more than 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) of streambeds. If the practice continues until 2012, it will have squashed a piece of the American earth larger than the state of Rhode Island.
In the years since high-tech earthmoving machinery made mountain topping increasingly attractive to the energy industry, more and more of West Virginia's total production of coal—some 154 million tons (140 million metric tons) in 2004—has come from its decapitated highlands. Relative to Western coal (Wyoming is the nation's top coal producer), second ranked West Virginia's low-sulfur bituminous burns with a cleaner, hotter efficiency in the electric power plants of America. And taxes from bituminous coal help fuel a large part of the state's economy.
But some West Virginians have been paying a hurtful price for their state's good fortune—and the coal industry's cost-cutting efficiency. In 1948 some 125,000 men worked in the mines of West Virginia. By 2005 there were fewer than 19,000, and most of these were employed in underground mines. Nowadays, it just doesn't take many hands to wrestle coal off the top of a mountain.
Consider, for example, the Big Coal River community of Sylvester, where fewer than 20 of its 195 longtime residents are employed in mining or related services. And consider Sylvester resident Pauline Canterberry. She lives in a small house just a quarter mile down State Route 3 from a coal-washing plant operated by the Elk Run Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, West Virginia's premier producer. Canterberry has been waging a decade-long battle with Massey and state and federal regulators over the volume of coal dust wafting from the Elk Run facility and sifting under the sills of Sylvester's homes. She has personal reasons for being concerned about the quality of the air. Her father, Ernest Spangler, died in 1957 from silicosis. His job had been putting out mine fires with buckets of pulverized rock dust. Then in 1991 her husband, John D. Canterberry, died of black lung disease after years of working in underground mines.