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How the mountains of Appalachia disappear

Michael Shnayerson profiles one valley's battle against mountaintop mining.

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In the vivid portrait Shnayerson paints, Blankenship has a tendency toward micromanagement and issues harsh edicts to employees, whether managers at Massey or his overworked maid, who aren't performing up to his standard. He's ruthless when it comes to union workers – he wants them out – and employees looking for workman's compensation after being injured on the job. He's also determined to wield power in politics as well, pouring millions of dollars into defeating a state pension proposal, unseating a justice on West Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals who had often ruled in favor of miners suing for disability payments, and (unsuccessfully) influencing the makeup of the state legislature.

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If Blankenship is the most colorful villain, the Army Corps of Engineers comes across as only slightly less evil with its routine failure to conduct environmental impact assessments or ensure that the proposed mines will minimize environmental damage and follow federal laws.

Most successfully, Shnayerson builds his stories around several real heroes, an underfunded lawyer and residents who – despite their lack of money, power, or formal education – do everything they can to fight back as they see their land and towns destroyed. Judy Bonds, a fiery activist in her 50s who continually takes on anyone in her path, is one of the most memorable. The daughter and granddaughter of coal miners, Judy grew up foraging for ramps, canning green tomatoes, and feasting on hog and whatever else her father could hunt in the surrounding woods. Her activism is fueled by the fact that Massey mining forced her out of the hollow where her family had lived for generations.

Ed Wiley, bothered by the worsening health of his granddaughter and many other students at the Marsh Fork Elementary school (situated directly beneath a coal impoundment containing toxic slurry and less than 300 feet from a coal-storage silo), is another. After being repeatedly rebuffed by West Virginia's governor in his efforts to get a new school, Ed walked nearly 500 miles to Washington, D.C., to get an audience with Sen. Robert Byrd. The senator listened compassionately but ultimately said he was unable to help with what he saw as essentially a state issue.

Narrative grounded in research

Shnayerson's portraits of these and other residents, along with Joe Lovett, the underdog lawyer who repeatedly wins battles in the state federal court only to have them struck down in the more conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, help keep "Coal River" from being just a polemic. Its sympathies may be clear, but the book is grounded in solid research and gains momentum as the courtroom victories and losses of its protagonists play out.

In the end, despite finishing with a major victory for Joe and the hope that this time, perhaps, the ruling will be held up on appeal, the book's message is a bleak one when it comes to the damage already wreaked on a beautiful corner of Appalachia. Shnayerson hopes to ensure that such destruction is, at least, not ignored by the rest of the country.

Amanda Paulson is a Monitor staff writer.