One of West Virginia's biggest time bombs reaches more than two miles down what used to be, when it was flowing free, the Connelly Branch of Mud River in Lincoln County. The fill represents part of a mountaintop the Arch Coal Company unhinged to create the 12,000-acre (4,800-hectare) Hobet 21 mine, one of the largest surface mines in West Virginia. But Hobet 21, now owned by Magnum Coal, has another distinction: For several years it's been home to "Big John," an earthmoving machine with a 20-story dragline and a bucket scoop that swallows over 100 tons of soil and rock in a single bite.
Up the Mud River a short way, a tributary known as Laurel Branch flows sweet and clear beside a weathered white-frame farmhouse. The front porch overlooks a garden of corn and potatoes. From the porch in the spring you can hear the vernal murmur of the creek, though not when the farmhouse is crowded, as it was at the time of my visit, with kin of the Caudill-Miller clan gathered at a place that has been in the family for a hundred years. Leon and Lucille Miller preside as host and hostess for these occasions. She is one of the surviving heirs of John and Lydia Caudill, who inherited 75 acres (30 hectares) abutting the Mud and built this farmhouse in 1920. Lucille was raised here, along with nine siblings. But now, for all the copious country food and Caudill hospitality, an explicable uneasiness lingered at the edge of the festivities. Moving to expand its Hobet 21 operation, Arch Coal had informed the Millers that it was looking to do with Laurel Branch what it had done to the Connelly. And Arch wanted the Caudill homeplace out of the way.
"They want it all," Leon Miller told me, "the house and everything. And we're saying, 'No.'"
Since that particular May reunion a few years ago, I have been following the ups and downs of the Millers' struggle to stop Arch Coal from burying Laurel Branch and the ancestral home under the shadow of Hobet 21. Arch did succeed in buying out some of the Caudill heirs, thereby acquiring a two-thirds interest in the 75 acres (30 hectares). But when Lucille Miller and six of the heirs continued to say "no," Arch's Ark Land Company filed a lawsuit in Lincoln County Circuit Court arguing that the holdouts should be forced to sell their interests because coal mining was "the highest and best use of the property" and because the cost of protecting the nearby MillerCaudill land from mining waste would be prohibitive for Arch. Besides, the company's attorneys said, the heirs did not live at the farm but used it only on weekends and other occasions. The circuit court ruled in the company's favor and ordered the property sold at auction. Arch got it. The Millers appealed to the state supreme court and won a reversal of the lower court's ruling. The farmhouse still stands, and the Laurel still murmurs, at least for now.
While Millers and Caudills rallied round their embattled homeplace, a larger but not unrelated issue was unfolding in federal courts and among the agencies responsible for regulating coal mining under the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA). Under "Smackra," as the act is known, environmentalists contend that the U.S. Office of Surface Mining should enforce a buffer-zone rule prohibiting, in all but the most exceptional cases, any mining activity within one hundred feet of a stream. Under the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to regulate the actual filling of the streambed itself.
Perceiving a lack of enforcement on both counts, opponents of mountaintop mining in West Virginia have been in and out of court for the past five years, occasionally winning a legal round only to have it set aside on appeal by attorneys for various agencies and the coal industry.
In or out of the courtroom, the argument often boils down to differing opinions as to what constitutes a regulated stream in Appalachia, how vital its uppermost reaches might be to the ecological health of the downstream watershed, and finally the degree to which valley fill might contribute to flooding in a peak storm event.
The defenders of valley fills argue that most of these structures affect intermittent streams only and therefore do not fall within the reach of the Army Engineers and the Clean Water Act. William Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, believes many fill areas are simply "dry hollows" for most of the year, implying that they serve little ecological function.
But that's not the way Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University, sees it. According to Stout, aquatic insects in seep springs at the top of a watershed feed larger life-forms by shredding leaf litter and sending the nutrient-rich particles downstream. "These insects provide the link between a forest and a river," Stout says. "Bury their habitat and you lose the link."
The issue of flooding also evokes conflicting views. Raney sees no connection between mountaintop mining and floods. "Science doesn't bear that out," he told me during an interview in his Charleston office. "What causes flooding is too much water falling in too short a time."
Yet a study by federal regulators, obtained by the Charleston Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act, predicted that one valley fill at the Hobet 21 mine could increase peak runoff flow by as much as 42 percent. Vivian Stockman, a project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, contends that 12 West Virginians have died since 2001 because of floods related to mountaintop mining. "Old-timers will tell you property that has been in their families for generations never flooded severely until mining began upstream," Stockman says. "It's common sense. Denuded landscapes don't hold water the way forests do."
It was not the intent of Smackra, of course, to allow coal companies to walk away from their surface mines and leave them denuded. Stripped mountainsides, the law declared, must be restored to their "approximate original contour" and stabilized with grasses and shrubs, and, if possible, trees. But putting the entire top of a topped-off mountain back together again was an altogether different—and more expensive—matter. So mountaintop mines were given a blanket exemption from this requirement with the understanding that, in lieu of contoured restoration, the resulting plateau would be put to some beneficial public use. Coal boosters claimed the sites would create West Virginia's own Field of Dreams, seeding housing, schools, recreational facilities, and jobs galore. In most cases it didn't work out that way. The most common "use" turned out to be pastureland (in a region ill-suited for livestock production) or what the industry and its regulators like to identify as fish and wildlife habitat.
"The coal companies have stripped off hundreds of thousands of acres," says Joe Lovett, an attorney for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, "but they're putting less than one percent of it into productive use."
Yet the industry should get some credit for what it's managed to accomplish in post-mining land use over the years. It's provided a number of West Virginia counties with the flat, buildable space to accommodate two high schools, two "premier" golf courses, a regional jail, a county airport, a 985-acre complex for the Federal Bureau of Investigation near Clarksburg, an aquaculture facility, and a hardwood-flooring plant in Mingo County that now employs 250 workers.
"Economically, we were dying on the vine," said Mike Whitt, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, as we toured the 40-million-dollar flooring plant, financed by grants from federal, state, and local governments and by private investors. "So we got OPM —other people's money—to get the job done. Without the infrastructure to create jobs, you're out of the game."
One emerging idea to help keep this under-employed region in the game is commercial forestry—restoring the land not as pasture or golf course or school but as a reincarnation of what used to be here in the rich diversity of the Appalachian forest. Arch Coal, with test plantings already established east of Whitesville, reports it's eager to pursue this option. "Our intent," says Arch's Larry Emerson, "is not just to approximate what was there before mining but, for the long range, establish a commercial forest."
Some foresters are not convinced that Arch is willing to go far enough in its romance with reforestation. James Burger, a professor of forestry at Virginia Tech University and a zealous proponent of turning topless mountains into productive forests, has found in his studies that weathered brown sandstone soils—making up a mountaintop's uppermost layer and therefore the first to be dumped and lost in a valley fill—would be better set aside and used, without compaction, as top dressing for any reforestation. But Arch's forestry consultant argues this would raise substantially the per-acre cost of reclamation.
A few environmentalists, such as Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center, hail Burger's crusade for reforestation as the next best thing to stopping mountaintop mining altogether. Others view it as a cop-out exercise in wishful thinking. "I understand what makes up that forest, and it's not just trees," says Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch. "I'm talking about the herbs and the plants that evolved here in this forest over thousands of years. Re-create that forest? You couldn't do it in 1,500 years."
Standing in the doorway of the Mountain Watch office on the main street of Whitesville, I listened to Judy Bonds reminisce about the way it was 50 years ago when she was a child. "I used to swim in the Coal River then," she said, "but now it's so full of silt that the water barely comes up to your knees. It breaks my heart. I look at my grandson, and I see that he's the last generation that will hunt and fish in these mountains and dig for ginseng, and actually know mayapple when he sees it. These mountains are in our soul. And you know what? That's what they're stealing from us. They're stealing our soul."
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