Reviewed 11/18/2009

Coal River, by Michael Shnayerson
Michael Shnayerson
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008




ISBN-13 978-0-374-12514-1
ISBN-10 0-374-12514-7 321p. HC $25.00

Coal is America's fuel. We have pumped plenty of oil since the first well was sunk in Titusville, PA in 1859; but we never had a major share of the world's petroleum. Coal we do have in plenty. It has long been the cheapest fuel for generating electrical power, and now that most of our oil comes from overseas, pressure to cut back on oil consumption leads naturally to pressure to burn more coal. Naturally, this pressure comes from coal-mining interests and, equally naturally, these interests have little concern for the global environmental damage that results from burning the fuel they sell in power plants: the release of sulfur, mercury, radioactives and carbon dioxide from power plants.

"This is a story of great forces in America destroying America itself: the need for cheap fuel, even if it pollutes more than any other kind and puts the planet at risk; the need of the companies that mine coal to make profits, whatever the environmental cost; the brute force of the coal industry that buys political influence with campaign contributions, gets its own lobbyists put in charge of the state and federal agencies assigned to regulate it, and pushes for loopholes in laws it hasn't already broken. And looming over the industry, the greatest force of all: Wall Street."

– page 9

Home of the Mother Forest

The Appalachian Chain is the oldest mountain range in the world, and its mountain crowns are home to a remarkably diverse array of living things: eighty species of tree1, many varieties of smaller plants, clear streams full of aquatic life, and plenty of wildlife. It is the only forest in North America that escaped obliteration by the glaciers of the Pleistocene Age. Ecologists call it the Mother Forest because, as the ice receded, its trees re-seeded the other forests of the continent.

The first settlers arrived in the eighteenth century. Most came from England, Scotland and Ireland, passing here from New England, where they failed to find the religious freedom they had sought. The remote hills of the Allegheny and Cumberland plateaus provided that freedom. In addition they were rich with game animals, the streams abounded with fish, and the hillsides with plants useful for food and medicinal purposes. The settlers established in this land of Appalachia a culture as unique as the environment they found there.

This is the land being ravaged by mountaintop removal. The process typically shears off the upper 500 feet of the mountain, and always leaves a desolate expanse of rock. The company is required to mitigate the damage. In practice, this "mitigation" consists of spreading 18 inches of topsoil, so that in a year or two the former forested peak becomes a grassy meadow. Meanwhile, the streams that were filled with rock separated from the coal never recover, and the chemicals used in the separation process are left in "impoundments" — holding ponds behind earthen dams that may or may not withstand the growing force of the slurry they contain.

But this book is about a different sort of environmental damage — the sort that results from the form of coal mining called mountaintop removal. It has become widespread in the Appalachian Mountains now that the thick seams of coal that allow underground mining have largely played out. Appalachia — the region that consists of southern West Virginia and eastern Tennessee — is afflicted by this practice because it is mostly mountainous, and because most of the mountains are owned by land speculators. These acquired the deeds in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often from poorly educated settlers, and now lease it to the coal companies.

Michael Shnayerson is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author of three other books. In this one, he does a masterful job of chronicling the battles over mountaintop removal in the state of West Virginia, where poverty rules the mountains and coal mining contributes a huge share of the economy. In Appalachia, being a miner is often the only way to earn a living wage.2

While he never loses sight of the big picture — the way coal mining companies pollute the environment and corrupt politicians — his focus in on how mountaintop removal affects the lives of local residents of the valley of the Coal River south of Charleston, WV, from which the book derives its title. As he describes it:

"No shiny new McDonald's restaurants or Burger Kings punctuate route 3's 56-mile passage from Racine south to Beckley. No hotels or motels; no Home Depots or Targets; no Applebee's restaurants or Olive Gardens or TGI Friday's. The Coal River valley is too steep for the malls and crossroads that could support such establishments. More to the point, it's too poor, and the coal companies own most of the land anyway. The residents of the Coal River valley are safe from the restless spread of franchise businesses of almost every kind. It's about all they are safe from."

– pages 3-4


Most Americans probably think of coal as the 19th-century fuel: Something their grandparents used to heat their houses. In fact, it is very much a fuel of the 21st century, responsible for 50% of the electrical power generated in this country. It is also responsible for lung disease and accidental death among the miners who wrest it from the earth. Mining it leads to waste ponds which sometimes burst their dams and drown people downstream.5 Coal-burning power plants release mercury and other toxic substances, more radioactivity than nuclear power plants, and they are the greatest fixed source of carbon dioxide.

Consider Don Blankenship, head of Massey Energy: driven to mine as much coal per shift as possible, relentless in pressuring his managers to that end, remorseless when the workers who actually dig the coal are injured, and resentful of anyone who dares to impose constraints on his operations—including the UMWA or the government. This book is a chronicle of his battles against almost everyone, and it shows why his rapacious methods will lead to ending the harmful practice of mountaintop removal.

To put it briefly, the Coal River people struggle to preserve their way of life. The battle Shnayerson describes pits Joe Lovett, a young lawyer living in Lewisburg, WV, against Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, a stereotypical coal baron. It turns on the definition of Nationwide 21: a class of permit held by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the management of America's waters, to apply to activities which would have "minimal adverse effect" on the environment.3 The phrase "would have" is key: It allows the Corps to avoid issuing an IP (Individual Permit) and thus skip the lengthy and expensive process of doing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In other words, it is a rubber stamp.4

The book makes a compelling read. I finished it in two days, which is about one-fifth the usual time. Shnayerson has a gripping subject and covers it with dedication (as is evident from the many court sessions and other meetings he attended, as well as interviews with the likes of Blankenship.) It won't give you the definitive picture on the mountaintop removal controversy. But it is superb for what it does cover, which is the personalities involved in the Coal River contest and the legal battles Joe Lovett and colleagues conducted (with mixed success.) It is thoroughly researched, well end-noted and indexed, and has my highest recommendation.

1 Most forests are dominated by two or three species.
2 Even on that score, mountaintop removal fails. Shnayerson reports, "In the 1940s, West Virginia coal operators had employed 130,000 miners. Half a century later, that number had dropped to 15,000 even as production soared." (page 45)
3 The "nationwide" permits were a feature of the Clean Water Act, as amended by Congress in 1977. Their intent was to save time and money "so that the Corps didn't have to send engineers out to inspect the site of every homeowner who wanted to put a pond on his property or build a little wood-plank bridge over his stream." (page 69) There are about 40 types, but #21 is an exception because it is applied to mammoth projects.
4 But the court, after a hearing, may suspend a given permit. In many cases, coal companies rush the work to finish before the verdict issues. Pages 72-73 document cases where coal companies went ahead with the work anyway after a court suspended their N21 permits.
5 Massey was responsible for the worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi. It happened on 11 October 2000. Three hundred million gallons of slurry spilled out of its Big Branch impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky, most likely because the abandoned mines it was built on top of collapsed. (pp. 49-50)

[ x ] I don't want to put too much of a hurtin' on old Don. Sure, he's driven to wring every ounce of effort out of his miners, but he treats them kindly (as long as they work their asses off 12 hours a day, don't expect workman's comp if injured, and never even think about joining the UMWA). He does refuse to hire union men, preferring instead inexperienced workers who are more accident-prone. Yes, he pulls down 13 million a year in pay and benefits (much more than other local coal-company CEOs), even when Massey loses money. Okay, he stacked the company board with yes-men. Granted, he spent millions on 527 campaigns that influenced WV elections, defeating a state supreme court judge. So he scoffed at both state and federal environmental regulations, often flouting court orders by proceeding with prohibited work so that by the time injunctions could be obtained, the matter had become moot. What if, by underhanded means, he drove a small competitor (a union shop) into bankruptcy (p. 88) or bought up another union company and closed it down to void its contract with the union, then after a year restarted it with nonunion employees and claimed he wasn't responsible for those 230 unemployed? (p. 163) He's still a coal supplier par excellence. (Much can be gleaned from Massey's treatment of Jerry Shelton and Rick Wagner (pp. 22-31) Indeed, the incident on p. 28 is totally indicative: Greg, a friend of Rick's, was the night office manager when Mr. B (Blankenship) called on the Red Phone and was annoyed when Greg failed to answer on the first ring. Mr. B ended the discussion by ordering Greg, "No matter what happens, don't hang up on me" and promptly hung up his end. The Red Phone was no dedicated circuit, but a standard phone line so of course the only way Mr. B could get through again is if Greg hung up, which is what he did. This did not stop Mr. B from chewing him out when he called back a minute later. "Rick remembered Don saying his goal was to get the average age of Massey's workers down to twenty-five by 2004. There was a saying around Massey: 'A man is like a tool. If it's bent or broke, get rid of it, and get you a new one.' " (p. 29)

[ y ] An important case is Bragg v. Robertson (page 104)

[ z ] "Anyone with eyes good enough to read the tiny type at the back of the EIS, where the scientific studies had been relegated, could see a story very different from what the rest of the document presented. Between 1985 and 2001, some 6,700 valley fills had been approved in West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee. Together, those fills covered nearly 84,000 acres. In West Virginia, the fills had buried more than 25,000 acres. All told, the fills had buried more than 724 miles of perennial or intermittent streams. At the rate it was going, mountaintop removal would destroy another thousand miles of streams in the next decade. Overall, the practice had probably destroyed 3.4 percent of the forest cover in the study area: about 380,547 acres. At that rate, it would eradicate or severely affect 1,408,372 acres, or 11.5 percent of the study area, before the region's mineable coal was gone. The final EIS, issued in October 2005 after eighty-five thousand public comments of concern and dismay, bore exactly the same recommendations as the draft." (p. ?)

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