Driving around the hollows of West Virginia with local resident and activist Paul Corbit Brown and listening to his stories, it’s easy to imagine the man is a bit paranoid.
Can it be possible a group of miners chased him and his girlfriend more than 30 miles one night, trying to force them off the side of the road to get at Brown for what they saw as the threat he posed to their jobs?
Did he really sit parked on the street one night talking when a man with a pistol in his belt opened his coat and told Brown he’d f—— kill him if he lost his job?
And did someone really pump five shots from a high-powered rifle into the front of his house following a town hall meeting one night, not caring if they killed the people inside?
It all seems a bit much. So, when he says we’re being followed by a coal company employee in a pickup truck I’m not sure what to believe, so I snap a picture of the guy. Almost instantly the truck fades into the road dust behind us.
As if he were reading my mind, Brown says, “Do you still think I’m paranoid?”
Brown was taking us to the one spot in a mountaintop coal removal area that the public could access. A small unkept cemetery at the top of an impossible steep hill.
From up there we could see dump trucks in the distance rebuilding the mountain that miners had blown apart pulling out veins of coal.
It turns out that a lot of the things supposed to be true about West Virginians actually are true. Making moonshine is a legacy passed on through the generations, families and neighbours here take care of their own, and many, many people survive by working the coal mines.
Whole towns were built over the centuries to house the men who went in to dig the coal, but where once it took several hundred men underground to do, it now takes a handful of men a fraction of the time by blowing the mountain apart.
It’s effective and perhaps safer in the immediate, but mountaintop removal mining is environmentally devastating. Blast by blast and truck by truck, the coal companies haul out the coal. They sift it from the rock and return all the rock where they found it.
Unfortunately when the mountain is restructured it lacks the three feet of top spoil required to host a hardwood forest — the same soil that acts as a sponge when it rains and keeps the Appalachian Valley ecosystem one of the richest in the world.
The mountain is sculpted into steppes and settlement ponds placed descending down the valleys. Like the Canadian oil sand mining, the big questions here involve reclamation and water. Can land bounce back to its orginal state when it’s mined like this, and can the mining companies truly be sure the water they’re putting back into the environment is safe?
The other thing about West Virginians is that many of them still trust the coal companies. Brown tells us the story of a woman, a mother of two, he interviewed before the coal company bought her house and razed it to the ground.
Her father worked at the coal company for years and, despite reports of mutated wildlife downstream, she said the coal company would never do anything bad. The only problem she ever had, she said, was once in a while her well water would turn red.
“It turns out,” Brown says, “that the woman’s water turned red when the chemicals in the ground water built up.” We’re driving past the flatland where the woman’s home stood until a couple years ago. “She’d dump bleach into her well to get rid of the red. Two gallons at a time.”
“People here just don’t know,” he says. “They just don’t know.”
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