"When I was young, Sylvester was the place to be," Canterberry said. "Everyone wanted a home here because the town was so clean. It wasn't a company town. But then Massey came into the valley, and it's been downhill ever since—in more ways than one. Now they'll take 300 feet (90 meters) off the top of a mountain just to get at a few feet of coal."
After a long succession of petitions and hearings, 150 Sylvester residents prevailed in their case against Elk Run, forcing the company to pay the litigants economic damages of nearly half a million dollars and requiring it to maintain a dust-trapping dome over its processing plant and to limit the number of coal trucks passing through town to an average of 20 a day. Despite these concessions, Canterberry and some of her activist neighbors are worried about Massey's plans to expand its Elk Run operations. (Massey representatives did not return repeated phone calls requesting information on its record at Sylvester.)
Several years ago the director of the state's Division of Mining and Reclamation issued a memorandum showing that for the years 2000 and 2001 Massey incurred 500 violations, more than twice the number accumulated by the state's next three largest producers combined. Sixty-two of those violations, most involving excessive coal dust emissions, were attributed to the Elk Run Coal Company at Sylvester.
I grew up beholden to West Virginia bituminous coal. My parents' house in Cincinnati was heated by it until they switched to oil in 1945. The coal came down the Ohio River by barge, and every wintry month or so a dump truck would deliver a big pile beside our garage. I remember helping my father cart it to the furnace inside, and the grating screech of his shovel on the cellar floor. And I remember the trail of black soot and the coal dust on my shoes. I was grateful for the warmth the coal gave us, but I hated it too because it was dirty. This was before public health and clean-air regulations obliged the mining industry to wash coal and, in Appalachia at least, dispose of the dust, dirt, and wastewater in impoundments, often perched precariously on the sides of the mountains.
There are some 500 of these impoundments in Appalachia today, more than half in Kentucky and West Virginia. Variously referred to as slurry ponds, sludge lagoons, or waste basins, they impound hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic black water and sticky black goo, by-products of cleaning coal, mostly from underground mines but also from surface mines. Mountain folk residing downhill from these ponds worry about what a flood of loose sludge might do—and has already done in a number of tragic cases.
In Logan County in the winter of 1972, following two straight days of torrential rain, a coal-waste structure built by a subsidiary of the Pittston Coal Company collapsed and spilled 130 million gallons (492 million liters) into Buffalo Creek. The flood scooped up tons of debris and scores of homes as it swept downstream. Survivors recalled seeing houses bob by, atilt in the swift current, the doomed families huddled at their windows. The final count was 125 dead, 1,000 injured, 4,000 made homeless. The Pittston Company called the disaster an "act of God."