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In coal country, heat rises over latest method of mining

Monday's explosion has focused attention on mine safety, but environmentalists worry about long-term effects of 'mountaintop removal.'

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Among the forces aligning against mountaintop mining, few would qualify as tree-huggers. Like Gunnoe, they're longtime West Virginians, usually connected in some way to coal mining, who speak in Appalachian twang of "hollers" and "cricks" - and are furious over what they see happening to the mountains and their communities.

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"I'm bitterly opposed to mountaintop removal, because it takes jobs away from coal miners," says Jim Foster, a Bob White resident who has retired from a union job in an underground mine, who volunteered for the local fire department for decades, and who brags - justifiably - about his homemade venison jerky and fudge.

Mountaintop mines rely more on machinery than muscle than do traditional underground mines, and they hire fewer workers, he says. Where West Virginia once had 120,000 mining jobs, it now has 15,000.

Mr. Foster's immediate concern, though, is his home. The dishes in the cabinet shake with every blast, and he's been warned that when mining begins on the mountain across from him rocks might hit his roof or windows.

He's determined not to leave, but Luke and Dara McCarty, another retired mining couple who live one town over in Cazy, say they'd get out if they could. The nearby mining has so depressed the value of their property, though, that they don't see any options.

"Every hollow used to be a booming little community," says Mrs. McCarty. "It's a devastated area now. But we can't afford to go anywhere else.... They use our poverty against us. They say they're bringing jobs in, but they're just destroying everything we have."

The promise of reclamation

The mining industry acknowledges its activities may be hard on some communities, but it is proud of reclamation work that follows the mining operations. Ads - and textbooks in Gunnoe's son's classroom - state that the industry leaves the landscape in better shape than it found it.

"Level land is a rare commodity in the steep slopes of southern West Virginia," says Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. Creating such land is a boon for local communities, he says.

Popovich cites successful developments - like a major golf course - built on some mountaintop mining sites. In other instances, he says, the landscape is restored.

Scientists counter that sensitive forest ecosystems are impossible to replace, particularly when the headwaters of streams are buried and the steep slopes removed. "They're living in this world of denial," says Ben Stout, an ecologist at Wheeling Jesuit University, of the reclamation claims. Gunnoe calls the efforts "putting lipstick on a corpse."

One of the oldest mountaintop mining sites in Boone County, the former Wind River mine that was reclaimed 15 years ago, is today a terraced hill covered in grass and shrubs, but no trees. A dry ditch of rocks was built where the stream once ran, to help with runoff, though many residents below say they live in fear of flooding.

As Gunnoe drives her red pick-up along the highway, she points out other areas of concern: a school where nearly all the children are reported to have respiratory problems, a place along the road where a mining company injects wastewater into abandoned mine shafts, and which sometimes erupts and causes landslides.

Gunnoe is a mother of two and worked as a waitress before she became an organizer. Part Cherokee, she's the fifth generation of her family to live in this valley. Her grandfather and father worked in the underground coal mines, and two brothers still do.

"I've been accused of being antimining, but I'm not," she says. She has, though, become a fervent advocate of renewable energy - she'd like to see the flat tops of former mining sites used for solar and wind power.

"If they want to call me an environmentalist, that's fine," Gunnoe says, referring to what's often a derogatory label in these parts. "But they need to realize the issues I'm talking about are human issues. Anybody who enjoys clean water and clean air is an environmentalist.... I don't fight just to save a mountain, I fight to save the people at the bottom of the mountain."

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