Overview

One of America's most dramatic environmental battles is unfolding in southern West Virginia. Coal companies are blasting the mountains, decapitating them for coal. The forested ridge tops and valley streams of Appalachia--one of the country's natural treasures--are being destroyed, along with towns and communities. An entire culture is disappearing, and to this day, most Americans have no idea it's happening.

Michael Shnayerson first traveled ...

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Coal River

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Overview

One of America's most dramatic environmental battles is unfolding in southern West Virginia. Coal companies are blasting the mountains, decapitating them for coal. The forested ridge tops and valley streams of Appalachia--one of the country's natural treasures--are being destroyed, along with towns and communities. An entire culture is disappearing, and to this day, most Americans have no idea it's happening.

Michael Shnayerson first traveled to the coal fields four years ago, on assignment for Vanity Fair. There he met an inspiring young lawyer named Joe Lovett, who was fighting mountaintop removal in court with a series of brilliant and daring lawsuits. He also met Judy Bonds, whose grassroots group, the Coal River Mountain Watch, was speaking out in a region where talking truth to power was both brave and dangerous. The two had joined forces to take on Massey Energy, the largest and most aggressive of the coal companies, and its swaggering, notorious chairman, Don Blankenship.

Coal River is Shnayerson's account of this dramatic struggle. From courtroom to boardroom, forest clearing to factory floor, Shnayerson gives us a novelistic and compelling portrait of the people who risked their reputations and livelihoods in the fight against King Coal.

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Editorial Reviews

Gary Krist
Shnayerson, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, takes on this environmental outrage with the muckraking zeal of a latter-day Upton Sinclair or Ida Tarbell. Focusing his narrative on what he considers the industry's worst offender—Massey Energy, the "biggest, most aggressive, and most hated of the coal companies" in the region—he shows how a very powerful corporation uses money and influence to ride roughshod over hard-won environmental laws. He also demonstrates how easily Big Coal has been able to manipulate government agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, turning those charged with conserving the landscape into accomplices in its destruction…Coal River, like the muckraking classics it emulates, may end up being most valuable as a call to arms.
—The Washington Post
Timothy Egan
The book is a fine work of investigative journalism, and the author can certainly hold a story together, juggling a half-dozen or so major players over the course of several years. There is drama and tension, pathos and sorrow, backstabbing and triumph.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Through vivid first-person reporting and a thorough culling of court transcripts, newspaper clippings and corporate reports, Vanity Fair contributing editor Shnayerson (The Killers Within) has crafted an incriminating indictment of the Appalachian "King Coal" industry in West Virginia, and of the man he defines as its rapacious kingpin, Massey Energy's CEO, Don Blankenship. The author's sympathies lie clearly with opponents of mountaintop mining, most prominently young attorney Joe Lovett and citizen activist Judy Bonds. Both have fought against a form of mining that shears off the tops of hills and dumps rubble into valleys and streams-a process abetted by the collusion of the state's often-lackadaisical Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' propensity to grant stream-destroying permits without oversight and the easing of environmental controls by the Bush administration. Shnayerson's compelling take on toxic mining methods and their heartrending impact on Appalachian inhabitants and their culture, has a wider focus than Erik Reece's 2006 title, Lost Mountain, which reported on one mountaintop's destruction, and strong echoes of the stomach-churning legal machinations recounted in Jonathan Harr's 1995 bestseller, A Civil Action. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Through vivid first-person reporting and a thorough culling of court transcripts, newspaper clippings and corporate reports, Vanity Fair contributing editor Shnayerson (The Killers Within) has crafted an incriminating indictment of the Appalachian "King Coal" industry in West Virginia, and of the man he defines as its rapacious kingpin, Massey Energy's CEO, Don Blankenship. The author's sympathies lie clearly with opponents of mountaintop mining, most prominently young attorney Joe Lovett and citizen activist Judy Bonds. Both have fought against a form of mining that shears off the tops of hills and dumps rubble into valleys and streams-a process abetted by the collusion of the state's often-lackadaisical Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' propensity to grant stream-destroying permits without oversight and the easing of environmental controls by the Bush administration. Shnayerson's compelling take on toxic mining methods and their heartrending impact on Appalachian inhabitants and their culture, has a wider focus than Erik Reece's 2006 title, Lost Mountain, which reported on one mountaintop's destruction, and strong echoes of the stomach-churning legal machinations recounted in Jonathan Harr's 1995 bestseller, A Civil Action. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
An investigative reporter visits the beautiful Appalachian mountains-a little less beautiful than before-and reports just what King Coal has done in the name of energy and, of course, profit. One of the best things about West Virginia and its neighbors is the terrain, which sits atop a great coalfield. Mining the rich lodes underground is much less efficient than strip mining, so mountains are decapitated to acquire the preferred bituminous coal beneath. The hills and hollows of Coal River Valley are devastated: In addition to coal, mountaintop blasting produces toxic slurry and lakes of sludge together with denuded ancient hardwood forests, displaced animals, dead fish and sick children, some even in danger of black lung disease. In an absorbing tale that echoes the age-old struggle of miners against management, Vanity Fair muckraker Shnayerson (The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria, 2002, etc.) portrays an angry citizenry united to fight the area's biggest polluter, Massey Energy, and its arrogant, hated CEO. Helping the bad guys make molehills out of the Appalachians are the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, lazy bureaucrats and judges beholden to the coal interests. Corporate minions redraw maps, blast without notice and destroy the ecosystem without governmental hindrance. Underpinned by a bit of pertinent history and basic ecology, the narrative is instructive, lucidly tracking legal maneuvers and courtroom confrontations. Especially well depicted are the aroused locals, stalwart, stubborn people allied with an odd hedge-fund operator and some bright, energetic lawyers against the clever, wealthy boss of Massey. Now, the author concludes, the good guys haveto hold on for a while longer until a new administration (of either party) proves itself willing to let the law prevail. Considerable human interest in a well-explored story of strip mining.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429933162
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 1/8/2008
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 617,982
  • File size: 345 KB

Meet the Author


Michael Shnayerson is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. His books include The Car That Could: GM’s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle and The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria with co-author Mark J. Plotkin.
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Read an Excerpt


Prologue


Something looks very wrong with southern West Virginia.

Seen from a plane, its forested ridges lie below, stretching like waves into the misty distance. But there amid them, like cancerous growths, lie large gray splotches. They might be clearings for new subdivisions, if they weren’t so remote. They might be a blight, except that there’s nothing for a blight to infect: everything, from trees to grass, is gone. More than anything, they look like crop circles: mysterious signs made to be read from above. But made by whom? And signifying what?

On Interstate 77, running south from Charleston with its gold-domed capitol, the hills on either side of the highway rise and dip with not a tree out of place. No strange clearings here. In ten minutes comes the turnoff for Route 94 east and then, a short way farther, Route 3 south, the two-lane blacktop that snakes through the Coal River valley. No clearings here yet, either.

Soon the hills on either side move in, narrowing the sky to a slit. The road bobs down and up and down again, under canopies of trees and around hairpin curves. Then the trees recede, and the valley widens just enough to hold a scattering of small houses, sunlit at noon but soon shadowed by the steep hillside behind them. The houses are separated from Route 3 by a stream overlaid with wood-plank crossings, like drawbridges over a moat.

This is the heart of the Appalachian coalfields—not fields at all but rugged, forested hills that still hide billions of tons of coal. 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.

In some ways, the valley confounds expectations. There are no tarpaper shacks, no miners in overalls with coal-smudged faces, no old jalopies. A few of the roadside houses have porches, but on none of them is an autistic mountain boy playing a banjo. The houses are wood or brick, neatly kept, and the pickup trucks that stop at the gas marts are mostly late-model American brands.

Yet coal’s legacy, in the valley that bears its name, is everywhere. Nearly all the hamlets on Route 3 are old coal towns, named after the camps’ founders—Edwight, Stickney, Pettus—or, as with Eunice and Dorothy, the founders’ daughters. In the 1910s, when train tracks began to stretch like vines through the valley, coal operators put up company towns here almost overnight. That was when miners lived in slapped-together two-family cottages with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Those cottages are long gone, as are the company stores and the company scrip the miners were paid, instead of money, for their long hours underground. But the towns remain, in some semblance or another. Some are mere meadows, with a few remaining foundations turned to mossy mounds. Others are just clusters of houses without a store. A few have gas marts, and fewer still a second or third store that might qualify them as a proper American town.

So close in are the hillsides that a visitor might be forgiven for thinking, as he drives through, that he’s seeing all the life there is to see here. Most residents of the valley live up the hollows that go off like ribs from Route 3’s curving spine. The roads that wind up those hollows grow narrow and give way to dirt. The houses tucked into the nooks of those hollows are mostly hand-built. Some are cottages, and some are just shacks, and many of the inhabitants of those dwellings do speak in an Appalachian patois that mixes the accents of their Scotch and Irish and English forebears. Some of them don’t come down much, and if they do, they don’t go much farther than the nearest town.

On Route 3, the first sign of mining in the valley is typically a coal truck that heaves into view. The road has no shoulder to speak of, and in places an outcropping of rock from the hillside extends just overhead, so that a car has only inches of leeway as the truck hurtles by. Coal-truck drivers are often paid by the haul, not by the hour, and so the faster they arrive at their destination, the sooner they can start their next haul. If they bear full loads and a car appears suddenly in front of them, the trucks can’t always stop in time. The local papers announce coal-truck accidents with depressing frequency, usually with fatalities and pictures of a car or pickup crunched to smithereens.

Two miles north of Whitesville—roughly the valley’s social midpoint—looms the next indication of mining in the valley. Fences and “Keep Out” signs surround an industrial site of drab, factorylike buildings and conveyor belts. This is a coal-preparation plant, not a mine. Coal from various mines is brought here, by belt and by truck, to be cleaned of debris, crushed into chunks or dust, and loaded onto trains for market. Massey Energy, the large, Virginia-based company that owns this operation, calls it Elk Run, after the elk that used to run here before it was built.

After the small, sleepy coal towns that line much of Route 3’s northern stretch, Whitesville comes as a shock. Once it was a thriving town, the hub of commerce between Charleston and Beckley. Now it looks desolate, its storefronts abandoned, its streets and sidewalks still. Hardly a car rolls by or lingers at the curb; even the parking meters are gone. Aside from the gas marts at either end of town, few businesses of any kind remain: two are funeral homes, and two are florists that serve the funeral homes. West Virginia may rank forty-ninth in prosperity among America’s fifty states, yielding only to Mississippi, but its citizens feel strongly about funeral flowers. At the valley’s largest cemetery, almost every gravestone is decorated with a bouquet.

At Whitesville’s south end, Route 3 crosses a set of train tracks. At least once a day, traffic backs up half a mile on each side as a loaded coal train, impossibly long, passes slowly, slowly by. For a moment or two after the train passes, Whitesville seems a boomtown once again, with bustling commerce. But then the road clears, and a silence settles back, sure as coal dust, over Whitesville’s desolate Main Street.

For the industry, this is a boom. Prices have soared, and demand is keen. Coal trains traverse the valley day and night. Coal trucks race up and down Route 3. Barges piled high with coal go down the broad Kanawha River, to the northwest. Yet little of this wealth has trickled down the hillsides into the Coal River valley, as it did in earlier booms. Whitesville resembles a wartime town pillaged by an advancing army. In a way, that’s what it is.

You have to get up to a ridgetop to see that army’s path. The view from Larry Gibson’s place will do just fine. Gibson lives on the top of Kayford Mountain, just east of Whitesville. His ancestors moved to the valley in the late 1700s and acquired five hundred acres of the mountaintop by wedding dowry in 1886. Twenty years later, a land-company agent from out of state gulled an illiterate forebear into marking his X on a contract that transferred most of the land for “one dollar and considerations.” Almost everyone in the Coal River valley has a story like that. The Gibsons, unlike most families, managed to keep fifty acres at the top of the mountain. Gibson lives there still. His mountaintop is a little green island surrounded, as far as the eye can see, by brown, raw, devastated earth.

This is what lies behind the picturesque backdrop of roadside hills in the Coal River valley: mountains reduced to rubble by the practice the industry calls mountaintop mining and its critics call mountaintop removal. The landscape from Gibson’s place is so much lower than his mountaintop compound that it’s hard to imagine the forested ridges that rose here before. It’s like a man-made Grand Canyon, except that the Grand Canyon teems with life, and this panorama has none—none except the men who work the distant dozers and huge-wheeled dump trucks, their motors a constant, hornetlike hum. An underground mine needs hundreds of miners, but a skeleton crew can handle a miles-wide mountaintop site, setting the blasts and operating the heavy machinery to push rubble into valley streams below. That’s one reason Whitesville looks as desperate as it does. The coal industry is making a killing. The Coal River valley is just getting killed.

The coal companies have tried hard to buy Gibson out because, he says, Kayford Mountain has more than a dozen seams of coal, worth millions of dollars, directly under his property. Gibson has turned them down. They want him gone, too, because he still bears witness to what they’re doing here. That’s rare. The coal companies own or lease nearly all the land outside the valley towns—the legacy of similar land grabs one hundred years ago by out-of-state speculators—and for the most part they can gate their operations, keeping people a ridge or two away from their mountaintop sites. Gibson looks out and reports on every new ridgetop and valley destroyed in the Kayford area. His mountaintop compound, with its half-dozen shacks and family cemetery, is a vantage point for anyone from out of the area who wants to see what mountaintop mining is about.

Miners hate that, and they find ways to let Gibson know it. They’ve shot up his place when he was there; his trailer has the bullet holes to show for it. They’ve torched one of his cottages. They’ve shot one of his dogs and tried to hang another. They’ve driven his pickup off the road, tipping it into a ditch, and paused long enough to laugh at him trying to get out. Gibson keeps a growing list of all the acts of violence and vandalism committed against him and his property. Currently, it totals 118. The stress of these threats—and of making his mountain a cause—led his wife to leave him not long ago. Gibson says she told him that if he stopped fighting for the land, the marriage might survive. But the mountain is his heritage, he says. How can he walk away from that?

Kayford is just one of nearly a dozen large mountaintop-mining sites that ring the Coal River valley like numerals on a watch face. It’s one of 229 surface mines in West Virginia, most amid these crenellated ridges of the Allegheny Plateau. Beyond southern West Virginia, the coalfields seep into three other states: eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and western Virginia. Hundreds of mountains in this region have been destroyed, reduced to half their heights, their ancient forest covers eradicated. The Environmental Protection Agency, even while sanctioning the practice, concluded in 2003 that more than 380,000 acres—all rich and uniquely diverse temperate forest—were destroyed between 1985 and 2001 as a result of mountaintop mining in Appalachia. Another way to put it, the EPA acknowledged, was that 3.4 percent of the land area of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and eastern Tennessee had been leveled or buried. That figure is probably more than 100,000 acres out of date by now. In those same sixteen years, the EPA estimated, more than 1,200 miles of valley streams were affected by mountaintop-mining waste. Of those, more than 700 miles were buried entirely. That figure is old now, too. Assuming the practice continues, the EPA suggested, more than 1.4 million acres will be destroyed before all the mountaintop coal in Appalachia is mined—in sum, almost as large an area as Delaware.

This would never happen in rural Connecticut, Maine, northern California, or other places where such devastation would stir outcry and people with money and power would stop it. But Appalachia is a land unto itself, cut off by its mountains from the east and Midwest. Its people are for the most part too poor and too cowed after a century of harsh treatment by King Coal to think they can stop their world from being blasted away.

The story of mountaintop mining—why it happens and what its consequences are—is still new to most Americans. They have no idea that their country’s physical legacy—the purple mountain majesty that is America—is being destroyed at the rate of several ridgetops per week, the result of three million pounds of explosives set off every day. They remain oblivious to the fact that, along with the mountains, a mountain culture is being lost. The valley’s Boone County is named for Daniel Boone, who traded ginseng and furs here with the Shawnees and Cherokees. There are Clays from Clay’s Branch and Pettrys from Pettry’s Bottom. There are Stovers and Cantleys and Jarrells and Webbs and Bonds, all descended from the valley’s first pioneer families. Americans outside the Coal River valley move, on average, 11.7 times in their lives, often state to state and coast to coast. Here, nearly everyone traces his lineage in the valley back six or eight generations, some ten or twelve. That lineage is the braid of a mountain culture unique to these towns and hills. The valley has rich traditions of storytelling, quilting and woodcrafts, ramp feasts, home gardening and canning, moonshine stills, bluegrass music, and more. All that, along with the hills, is under siege today.

If Don Blankenship, chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, were asked why he blasts the mountains instead of mining underground, he would likely view the question as naïve. Massey—biggest, most aggressive, and most hated of the coal companies in this southern part of the state—has led the way in mountaintop mining because in the long run it’s cheaper, much cheaper, than labor-intensive underground mining in many areas, especially the Coal River valley. Massey must compete with Arch, Peabody, and Consolidated, among other Appalachian coal companies, for its markets. All, in turn, must compete with the big open pits of Wyoming and other western states. And the United States must compete with China, where labor and life are cheap and environmental standards are low. Capitalism is just survival of the fittest, Don likes to say, and in this unforgiving market mountaintop mining is the only way for an Appalachian coal company to survive.

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.

Yet in the spring of 2004, when I made my own first visit to the Coal River valley, a few stubborn West Virginians were fighting those forces. One was a boyish-looking environmental lawyer from Charleston. Another was a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter, raised in a hollow outside Whitesville. With them were a few dozen locals who felt they had no choice but to fight the coal companies destroying their land and way of life. This ragtag band had none of the money and power of King Coal. But they had won some battles, and, for all the scorn Don Blankenship heaped upon them, they were about to win some more.


Excerpted from Coal River by Michael Shnayerson. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Shnayerson. Published in January 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents


Prologue: A Valley Under Siege     3
The Tip-off from Tony     11
A Brute Force Called Massey     19
Fighting Back     36
A Short-Lived Legal Victory     59
Stacking the State Supreme Court     76
The War with Washington     95
A School in Massey's Shadow     128
The Dead Souls of Smithers     146
Marching in the Valley     164
Massey's Unwelcome New Friend     183
Don's Terrible Year     200
Turning a Courtroom Loss Around     210
A Walk Through West Virginia     218
Back in Court Against the Corps     236
Don Goes for It All     261
A Ruling at Last     276
Epilogue: The View from Kayford Mountain     295
Notes     299
Acknowledgments     307
Index     309
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