On the Trail of Big Coal

The mountain below us is gone. Flatland. Tableland. Sterile. Bare. Dead.

“Our culture, our history, our cemeteries—decimated—just like the Indians,” says Larry. “We had cemeteries all over these mountains, buried our kin on top of mountains to give them a view.”

He shows me through the trees where his family cemeteries were.

“Massey pushed all my family’s graves, 139 of them, over the edge with one bulldozer.” He points and pauses. “Right over there. They didn’t even bother to tell us, much less ask.”

“Over 1,000 cemeteries have been destroyed in the last ten years,” Chuck says.

“How much coal can it be worth to push 150 people, people that were somebody, over the cliff?” Larry asks.

“This is the work of only nineteen men and their machines,” says Chuck, quietly. “When I worked in the 1970s, there were 150,000 coal miners in West Virginia. Today, we have less than 17,000, and they mine just as much coal. It’s all about efficiency.”

I have never seen such a perverse skyline.

Think Machu Picchu in reverse.

Think of a freeway project that got started on top of a majestic mountain and was left.

Then think of spray-painting the whole open wound of Earth green with hydro-seed and calling it restoration, reclamation. And walking away.

Think of the tons of dynamite used day after day after day to take down a mountain and the flying boulders catapulting down from the top, flying through the air, raining on the valley.

Think of the trailers and homes below and the day one boulder flew through the roof of a house and killed a child.

Think of the coal company CEO compensating the grieving family for the life of that child and think of the hand that wrote a check for $15,000 and the other hand that received it.

This is but a short excerpt from Terry Tempest Williams’s essay in the June issue. That issue also contains a great essay by Wendell Berry. To read the story in its entirety, as well as the whole issue, simply subscribe to The Progressive for just $14.97—that’s 75% off the newsstand price. Just click here.