A foggy future in coal country
Five years after a mine explosion killed 29, few expect justice
WHITESVILLE, W. Va. — Only minutes after turning off Interstate 64, cell service disappears and a world that seems untouched by time appears in the fog-covered valleys that unfold along sinuous Coal River Road.
There are none of the chain businesses that make towns across America look disconcertingly similar. The houses that dot the roadside were last updated long ago, and many of the arteries that branch off the main thoroughfare and into the hills above remain unpaved.
Though so much wealth has been extracted from these once coal-rich mountains, there are no visible traces of any windfall to the people or the land that made it possible. There is no sign that any thought was ever given in preparation for a day that could have been foreseen, a day when coal wouldn’t be king in the country’s choice of energy sources and when the people here wouldn’t be needed.
Instead, now that coal can be blown out of the mountains rather than mined from within, and natural gas is cleaner and cheaper to use, what’s easiest to see is the bust that hit in the wake of the boom times.
Yet despite its national decline, coal still rules here.
Time of course hasn’t stood still, but limbo does mark the lives of the 24,000 and dwindling inhabitants of these Appalachian hollows in Boone County, southern West Virginia.
Some people are waiting for coal to roar back and return with jobs and hope. Others are waiting for it to leave them — their water, their mountains, their air and their lungs — completely alone.
If there is a shared heart here, it was broken five years ago this April, when the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Whitesville took the lives of 29 miners and forever scarred those of the family, friends and neighbors left behind.
While everyone might not agree about who is to blame for the explosion, the consensus has always been that something was bound to happen at that mine. Even if the disaster shocked the collective pulse of these hollows, locals weren’t surprised it blew. Not since Don Blankenship became head of Massey. The combative and now former CEO famously broke the unions here and drove a furious production pace that demanded shortcuts at the cost of miners’ health and safety.
What no one saw coming, though, was Blankenship’s federal indictment in November 2014, blaming his leadership for the tragedy. The corporate head had long been seen as untouchable.
But if his trial could offer the potential for accountability, justice and maybe even closure in this painful chapter, people here will have to wait for that as well. On January 5, the judge in Blankenship’s trial granted his motion to delay its start, set for January 26, until April.
When word of the delay reached the residents of Boone and neighboring Raleigh County, they met it with a shrug. Even indicted, Blankenship was still powerful. People spoke of how he had previously poured $3 million to successfully unseat a West Virginia Supreme Court justice and replace him with another, who in turn then overturned a lower court’s $50 million finding in a case against Massey.
The news was also met with silence from several residents. The same judge issued a broad gag order preventing many from speaking to the media, in a place where many already hesitate to say too much, lest it hurt their chances to get a job if the future makes a U-turn.
Besides, said those who would speak, the trial — whenever it starts — wouldn’t bring back the dead or the relative prosperity they once knew.
While the shuttered storefronts are a constant reminder of the long-gone good times, the fallen are remembered with two memorials along Coal River Road. The first, in the heart of Whitesville, is an elegant roadside memorial plaza. Its centerpiece is a black granite monument etched with the silhouettes of 29 life-size miners standing shoulder to shoulder. Along its back, engraved text tells the history of coal in the region, carefully skirting any assignment of blame for the disaster.
The other memorial is outside the town, at the mine’s entrance, much less visible and much more poignant. Twenty-nine black miner’s helmets, each with the name of one of the 29 fallen miners, rest on top of 29 small red crosses. Rosaries and bandannas adorn some of them. The plaque is very simple and says only, “In memory of the 29 men whose lives were lost at Upper Big Branch April 5, 2010.”
At the only bar in Whitesville — where a sign outside says there’s a “daley special” and where the cost of a beer is inflated to $3 to discourage drunkenness — most of the light comes from the flickering screens of the gambling machines.
Turning their faces away to talk while their fingers keep laying bets, the patrons all know someone who died in the disaster.
The bartender, Dawn, says, “You won’t find anyone here who will say a good word about Blankenship.”
“Those were good men who died.”
'Around here, that's the way of life.'
Up Coal River Road from Whitesville, everything changed for Naoma resident Amanda Foster, 31, when her husband lost his job — which she blames on the neighbors she calls “the tree huggers.”
For Foster, they are a bigger problem than Blankenship ever was. In her eyes, poor safety in a single mine many levels under his supervision is not an indictment of the industry, especially one that gave her family so much.
Rather, she says, the tree huggers’ meddling and coming here from outside chased coal away — and things were better when coal was here. She speaks with nostalgia of the now long-closed movie theater and bowling alley in Whitesville, and points to the town’s many other closed shops and businesses.
“Before everything happened, we had a good living. We didn’t have to worry,” says the mother of two, who also has two stepchildren from her husband. “We need help from the state now.”
The tree huggers she’s referring to are a few doors down on Coal River Road, the nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch. The activists oppose mountaintop coal removal on Coal River Mountain, which involves blasting away the mountain to get at the coal within. The process, they say, degrades their environment and health, from destroying the mountaintops and weakening natural flood barriers to polluting the air and poisoning the water in the ground.
Foster’s husband used to work at that surface mining facility as a driver until he was laid off in February 2014.
Both Foster and her husband dismiss the concerns raised by the organization. Blasting the mountains is just fine, as the companies reconstruct them afterward, resulting in what both say is an aesthetically nicer space. They also don’t believe that the process poisons the water at the elementary school located directly downhill from the facility.
Foster, who attended Marsh Fork Elementary as a child, offers herself as proof. “I went there,” she says. “And I’m fine.”
What gives anyone the right, then, Foster wants to know, to interfere with the ability of people to choose for themselves what risks they want to assume for a job?
“We have been coal mining for years; all miners know what risk they’re getting into,” she says. “Here, we do anything for our families.”
Foster, however, hopes her 3-year-old son, Jeremiah, who clamors for his mother’s attention as she speaks, chooses not to do it. She hopes he will go to college one day.
To survive without work, Foster and her husband are dipping into his 401(k) and do without where possible. They’ve canceled their extra cable channels and have sold off some of their stuff: guns, a tanning bed, a car.
While she says they are learning this new way of life, something has to change. Unwilling to leave the hollow where her neighbors include her mother and brother, and calculating that commuting costs to the nearest city, Beckley, would negate lower incomes there, she believes coal is the only way out. If only the jobs would return.
But for now, she sees obstacles everywhere to that ever happening, namely the EPA, Obama — whose re-election made her cry — and her neighbors.
Not too long ago her daughter came home from the new elementary school that activists from next door had lobbied and raised funds to have built. Students had received a new T-shirt to commemorate the school’s dedication, with the logo the activists had used in their campaign to raise awareness of the school’s water contamination. When Foster saw her daughter wearing it, she quickly made her take it off, marched across to her neighbors and said, “You are not welcome in my home or on her back.”
She then tore up the T-shirt in front of them and tossed it on their doorstep.
She explains, “Their support caused my husband to lose his job.
'It don't belong there. Kids' lives are in danger.'
When Foster flung the torn-up T-shirt at Coal River Mountain Watch’s door, the organization’s co-director Debbie Jarrell, 56, saw it as further proof of what she sees as a frustrating twist: that those most exploited by the coal industry are also some of its most ardent defenders.
“They done a very good job of dividing community members, of making workers feel as if they were coal,’’ she says. “If you spoke out against the company, they would say you are speaking out against the miners. They’re all one happy family.”
Thus, in the eyes of people like Foster, any criticism of the coal industry’s practices translates into an attack on the very livelihoods of miners, turning activists such as Jarrell into outsiders. Jarrell’s colleagues at the office regularly receive threats.
While it is true that out-of-state college students, celebrities such as Daryl Hannah and environmental activists like Robert Kennedy have come to participate in demonstrations against mountaintop removal, the founders of the organization have everything in common with the miners and their families, despite the gulf between them.
Jarrell is a native of a hamlet called Jarrell’s Bottom, with many miners in her family across generations. She became involved in activism when she noticed that her granddaughter, who attended the elementary school below the surface mining operation on Coal River Mountain, was constantly sick. It was then that she learned of the site’s nearby unlined slurry, with a capacity to hold almost 3 billion gallons of toxic coal refuse.
A similar slurry that Massey had built in Martin County, Kentucky, broke in 2000, poisoning rivers and wildlife. So Jarrell became instrumental in having the school shut down and a new school built away from the mining further up on Coal River Road. (One third of the money came from a private donor, the Annenberg Foundation.)
For Jarrell, the interests of industry and the miners are not one and the same, and the relationship is inherently and woefully imbalanced — especially with no union left to represent the miners.
But with so many in the community focusing only on mine safety and not the perils of the industry as a whole, few think about new kinds of jobs or a different vision for these mountains. And with energy companies owning nearly 60 percent of private land in Boone County, ideas that could bring other jobs here are often dead on arrival.
After the explosion at Upper Big Branch, Jarrell says some began to see the safety failures as she did: a natural outcome of an industry that at its core was only exploitative of these mountains and its people. But they were still few and not public in their support. Only quietly or under their breath, she and her colleagues say, did they share a nice word or tell them they were right.
“Most didn’t connect the dots,” she says.
Despite scientific studies that demonstrate the negative effects of the industry on Appalachia’s environment and the health of its people, Jarrell still says it’s an uphill battle. She points to the recent fight on the West Virginia Board of Education to change the curriculum’s science standards to portray climate change as a debate.
So when Blankenship was indicted, Jarrell says, she was floored.
“Hopefully it means someone does care, that someone is going to start looking out for the men in the mines and things like the UBB disaster will be a thing of the past,” she says. “Hopefully it will let other owners of the industry know that they’re not untouchable any longer, and perhaps they’d put the safety of their workers’ lives [as] more of a priority than profits.”
But she still doubts Blankenship will ever do jail time.
'...there would be like a quarter-inch of coal dust on everything in the house.'
For 59-year-old retired miner Chuck Nelson, Blankenship needs to be in jail for a lot more than just the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine. He believes the disaster was just another example of what Massey did to the region and how its practices changed what it meant to be a miner here — for the worse.
Before, he says, Whitesville was a great place to live. People went to parks together, threw cookouts and attended exhibition softball and baseball games that came into town.
“Every day was a holiday; every day was a reunion; every weekend everybody would get together and do things,’’ says Nelson.
That’s changed. People moved to other counties or states in search of jobs. Some had to leave after surface mining made their homes unlivable, sometimes bought out by Massey. The population has dwindled.
“They want people out here so they can do what they want,” says Nelson. “And it’s worked.”
But the trouble began much earlier, he says, when Blankenship finally succeeded in breaking the unions in the early 1980s. In the relationship between company and miner, all the power swung to Massey.
With today’s miners not knowing any other way, Nelson believes it was easier for them to accept that Massey’s practices were the norm, and to see the question of Blankenship’s culpability as one of whether he knew directly of the conditions at the Upper Big Branch mine and willfully did nothing to fix it. And given the BBQs and parties he used to throw, Nelson thinks it’s possible for some miners to believe that Blankenship wouldn’t be so callous.
But Nelson rattles off a litany of places where he believes Blankenship has committed crimes. There was Sylvester, the town where Nelson used to live and which successfully sued a Massey subsidiary for damages resulting from toxic coal dust that blanketed the town. And there was Rawl, where the town sued Massey for poisoning their water supply. Though Massey settled with no admission of fault, Blankenship, who lived in Rawl, had clean water pumped directly to his house, bypassing Rawl’s water system.
Upper Big Branch was bound to join that list, he says. Those who knew that best, he adds, were the miners who worked there.
Nelson recounts how one of the men who was killed used to write letters to his wife that began, “If I don’t come home,” knowing he might not come back from his shift.
“This is not letters you write when you’re going to work; these are letters you write when you go to war,” says Nelson, faltering with emotion. “But they knew if they opened their mouth and said anything about it, they knew their job was history, they’d never work in the coal industry again. That’s why they didn’t say anything. It finally caught up with them.”
Nelson plans to attend Blankenship’s trial when it finally does start. “But it can’t heal the damage he did,” he says. “It can’t be undone.”
'There weren't all bad actors.'
Dr. Donald Rasmussen, 86, is looking at the readout of retired miner Eric Giedel’s cardio-pulmonary stress test to see just how bad the damage is. Giedel has come all the way from Pennsylvania to the doctor’s clinic in Beckley, next door to Boone County, because of Rasmussen’s expertise in black lung disease.
Giedel's wife found out about Rasmussen on the Internet. Standing outside the examination room, she watches as her husband walks shirtless along a treadmill, his facing turning red with exertion.
Boone County leads West Virginia in the rate of black lung disease, which miners develop because of the dust they inhale in the process of mining coal. The occurrence of the disease was on the decline, says Rasmussen, until it began to increase dramatically in the last 10 years. He attributes this mostly to the narrower seams of coal that are being mined now that the thick ones are gone and to the lack of unions to enforce better dust control for miners.
“Most of the good coal is out of central Appalachia. They’re mining bad coal,” he says. “It’s well enough to make a profit, but there are other costs.”
Rasmussen, a Colorado native, came to West Virginia in 1962 and never left. The work, he says, is compelling and became his life’s mission.
“Coal miners are just about the solidest bunch of people you will ever run into; you have to have a bit of character if you are going to go spend 40 years mucking around in a narrow seam of coal in dirty, wet conditions and go through the danger day in and day out. It’s not that they ignore the health issue, but they just don’t have a better way to feed their family.”
Just as he’s been with them through their physical pain, he has adopted their low expectations as well.
“I frankly doubt the trial of Blankenship — which most of us don’t pay much attention to other than the fact we think it would be a grand idea to convict Blankenship — I doubt it will have a general effect on the industry.”
Blankenship’s trial is now set to start on April 20 in the U.S. District Court in Beckley.
He stands accused of conspiring to willfully violate mandatory mine safety and health standards, with the goal of increasing Massey’s profits and enriching himself. He has also been charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States in order to hamper, hinder, impede and obstruct the Department of Labor and MSHA in the administration and enforcement of mine safety and health laws at the Upper Big Branch mines.
On February 6, his lawyers filed a dozen motions trying to get the case dismissed, also asking that the judge in the case be removed. And they want the trial moved outside of Raleigh County. “Relentless, unfair, prejudicial publicity,” they argue, makes it impossible for Blankenship to get a fair trial here.
The patrons at the bar back in Whitesville agree with Blankenship’s lawyers. A miner’s wife hitting a good streak on the gambling machine says, “You’re not going to find no one who’ll say a good word about him.”