Clean Water Wanted: Contaminated Wells And The Legacy Of Fossil Fuel Extraction Monday, Mar 2 2020 

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“You seen that one with the tombstone up there?” seven-year-old Timothy Easterling asks, looking toward the grass just uphill from his home. “That’s my papaw.” 

Timothy’s grandfather Chet Blankenship died in 2016, at age 69. Blankenship lived on land he and his family have long owned at the end of a road atop Bradshaw Mountain in McDowell County, West Virginia. His hand-painted tombstone sits in the grassy patch above the family homes.

Blankenship’s daughter Melissa Easterling now lives in the house next door with her husband, Chauncy Easterling, who grew up on a nearby ridge. They live together with their son Timothy, and usually one or two foster children.

Chet Blankenship died from kidney failure soon after his family started noticing odd colors and smells in their well water. After he died, they got their water tested, and learned that arsenic was among the contaminants that had seeped into their well. The National Institutes of Health links high arsenic exposure to a range of kidney diseases.   

The family can’t prove that the arsenic in the water caused Blankenship’s death, and they can’t get firm answers about the contamination in their well and the mining and drilling activity that surrounds their property. But Timothy’s memories of his grandfather reflect the family’s anxiety about the water they depend on.

“One time Chet used it and then he got so sick he just gave up and died, didn’t he?” he asked his mother.

Melissa gently corrected him. “Honey, he didn’t give up. It just — he had to go.”

Timothy thought for a moment, then quietly chimed back in, “He used to be my papaw.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Easterling family, Chauncy, Melissa and Timothy, in their living room.

The Easterlings live in the central Appalachian coalfields and much of the land has been mined for miles in every direction. Water runs through the collapsed network of former mines, which may house industrial waste, as well as byproducts from the gas wells that tapped into the methane associated with coal seams. 

There are many possible sources of contamination but the family doesn’t know which company might be to blame, or how to hold one accountable to fix the problem, or at least pay for them to get connected to a clean water system. State environmental officials deny there is any evidence connecting the bad water to the mining or drilling nearby. Adding to the family’s frustration, they’ve been asking for a connection to the nearby public water system for years, only to hear that there’s not enough money.

For decades, public water systems in the US have been consistently underfunded, affecting both water access and water quality. EPA records show that in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia alone, there have been more than 130,000 violations reported in the last twenty years. At least 2,000 systems have tested positive for contaminants since 2012. Those statistics only cover people connected to public water systems. 

Nationwide, another thirteen million people draw from private wells, and two million people don’t have a reliable source of running water. In areas affected by extraction industry, such as McDowell County, many wells and springs that rural residents are used to relying on are now running dry or showing unsafe levels of contaminants like arsenic and lead. 

Struggling for Water 

When their water issues started, Chauncy and Melissa contacted the county health department to get their water tested. On seeing the family’s dark brown water, the department referred the family to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection for more advanced testing. The family also had testing done by Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that has been drawing attention to people living with contaminated water. Those tests revealed unsafe levels of arsenic and lead, among other contaminants. 

Chauncy and Melissa, together with Willie Dodson of Appalachian Voices, also tested water sources within a few miles of their house. They say they’re yet to find a water source that they trust. The most alarming reading came at a gas well that was drilled into a shallow section of a giant underground mine. It sits right beside the creek that’s below the Easterlings’ home. 

Animation by Ariana Martinez

Residents tried to cap an abandoned well with stones.

That sample showed levels of lead and arsenic even higher than what had shown up in the Easterlings’ well water, along with other contaminants. 

Just downstream from that sample site, water from the mine had broken out of the hillside and was flowing into the creek with an oily sheen that left the creek a dingy shade of orange. 

More rounds of testing followed, including by scientists from Virginia Tech. The Easterlings say one official told them he suspected coal slurry, a toxic waste product from coal preparation, was the main contaminant, but never gave them any formal documents or test results. 

Animation by Ariana Martinez

The Easterlings knew there were problems when the water ran brown.

Official comment and documents from the DEP say that there was “no indication that the well was impacted … by mining activity,” because both of the neighboring mines on record were deeper than the bottom of the well. The Easterlings believe that mines and gas wells exist far beyond what’s shown on the records. 

The family can sometimes gather enough water from rainfall, using a system Chauncy put together to collect runoff from their roof into a cistern. When there’s a dry spell, Chauncy hauls water, towing a 250 gallon tank behind his pickup truck. Filling and hauling the tank costs the family around $200, and the water is only good for washing and flushing toilets, not for drinking.  Since Chauncy works full time, they’ll sometimes have to wait for a weekend before he can fetch water. In the meantime, they have to make do without bathing and doing laundry. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Easterlings with the water collection system they built.

Some of their neighbors, particularly those who are elderly and on fixed incomes, aren’t able to install a rain collection system or haul water. That leaves many of those already in the hardest situations with no alternative to using contaminated water from their wells and springs. 

Linda McKinney runs the main food pantry that serves McDowell County. She says that all of the families served are drinking water from unsafe sources. She also sees kidney and liver issues far too often among those families. 

The pantry provides bottled drinking water along with food, but they’re not able to fully meet the families’ needs. The food pantry recently received a donation of hydro-panels, which use solar energy to condense water moisture from the air. McKinney hopes that will help narrow the gap between what her team is able to provide and the need for clean water among the families they serve. 

Widespread Issue

I’ve reported on water issues since 2016, mainly in the central Appalachian coalfields. The most glaring water problem I covered was in Martin County, Kentucky, where residents complained about possible exposure to health risks due to extremely leaky pipes and a lack of communication around water outages. 

Martin County’s many-layered water problems started to get national attention and significant outside funding. But the $5 million now heading for Martin County is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $600 million in water infrastructure needs that exist just in Appalachian Kentucky, according to a study from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority. That includes $28 million for Letcher County, where I live, and where a third of the residents have no option for connecting to a public water system, according to the same study. 

The federal government estimates that $472 billion in water investments are needed across the country in the next twenty years. If you break that down to one year, it’s a bit over $23 billion. 

In recent history, the most the federal government has allocated toward water system infrastructure was $7.7 billion in 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Every other year since at least 1995, the amount has been less than $3 billion, even though the government’s own assessments have always shown an average annual need of at least $12 billion.

In reporting on Martin County I spoke repeatedly with Nina McCoy, a retired science teacher who, together with her husband Mickey, has played a prominent role in water testing and advocating for local water protection since at least 2000. That’s when a coal slurry impoundment broke through an underground mine shaft and sent a flood of sludge roaring down multiple creeks in Martin County, poisoning miles of streams.

McCoy says that in recent years, she’s seen a shift in local thinking and national awareness. She recalls that when neighbors without water in Martin County first saw TV coverage of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, “It was like, oh my gosh, there are other people who have water problems.” 

McCoy now believes that any real solution will have to come from solidarity among communities whose water has been impacted. “We all need to get together on this, because this is a problem nationwide.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Nina and Mickey McCoy outside their restaurant in Inez, KY.

The kinds and causes of America’s drinking water crises are widely varied, but extractive industry is a common thread. On a reporting trip to a coal mining region of the Navajo Nation, near Black Mesa, Arizona, I learned that while rain has long been scarce in the area, there used to be reliable sources of groundwater. Windmill-powered water wells dot the landscape, but many of them have run dry. Since coal mines opened on Black Mesa and started using large amounts of water to pump coal to a power plant, many wells and springs have run dry. 

The mines and power plant recently closed, but it will still take years for the groundwater to recharge. In the meantime, rural residents have to pay to haul water from a well in town that taps into a deeper layer of groundwater. That water can be used for crops and livestock but not for human consumption. Drinking water has to be bought or brought in from elsewhere. 

Nicole Horseherder is a resident of Black Mesa and founder of the community organization Tó Nizhóní Ání, which translates roughly to “clean water speaks.” She has seen the springs on her land dry up, making it harder and more expensive to keep livestock. Her fears though are mainly for the future.  

“What’s going to be here in 20 years?” she asked. “If it’s not going to be here and it’s a life-giving element, there’s going to be no life here.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Residents of Black Mesa, AZ, wait to fill water tanks.

Watershed Moments

Many residents in affected communities feel there’s a special injustice to situations like these, where clean water hadn’t been a problem until extractive industries took a toll. 

Melissa Easterling said that growing up in McDowell County, good water was plentiful. High tables of clear groundwater flowed from abundant springs and streams. Her family and neighbors didn’t need to worry about water infrastructure. She suspects that as the used-up mines were allowed to flood, the water table sank. And now, she fears, the residue of coal and gas extraction seems to have left the water contaminated. 

The Easterlings live at the end of Emerald Ridge. Looking south, the next ridgeline marks the state line with Virginia. To the north, down below, is a wooded valley carved by Panther Creek. The creek flows on into Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, which marks the state line with Kentucky.

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The wooded hills along Panther Creek.

The area surrounding Panther Creek was long known as Panther State Forest and is now a wildlife management area meant for hunting and fishing. Chauncy says it was once an extremely popular fishing spot, but he and other locals have long stopped going there because of contamination fears.

Staff at Panther WMA say that water wells in the park are tested regularly, and haven’t shown any excessive levels of contaminants. They still stock the creek for fishing, and grow gardens to attract deer for hunters. The park still feels wild and healthy, though you’re likely to come across more gas wells and pipelines than other visitors.

Looking downstream from where dirty mine water flows into the creek, Chauncy lamented what’s been lost. “We used to drink the water out of that creek. Now you can’t do it. It’s contaminated.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chauncy Easterling watches murky water seep into a stream feeding into Panther Creek.

He worries for the future. “God knows our children’s children won’t be able to swim in that creek or play in that creek or fish in that creek.” 

Water System Woes

The McDowell County water system has a line that runs up Bradshaw Mountain, and it reaches some of the families whose wells have dried up or been contaminated, but it stops a mile short of the Easterlings’ home. The family has been trying to get connected for eight years, but there’s still no money for the project, which would take years more to complete even once funding is found. 

Much of the water infrastructure in McDowell County was installed by coal companies for their workers when the industry was booming. But coal production has been declining in McDowell County since the 1940’s. Many water systems were abandoned as the mines closed, and were then neglected for decades. 

A county-wide public service district was created to take over the systems with the intention to maintain, update, and expand them. The problem is, there hasn’t been enough money. Federal funding, once provided through grants, was largely converted to loans. The McDowell PSD now has $34,000 in monthly debt payments and can’t afford to take more loans, according to General Manager Mavis Brewster. 

“You don’t want to keep raising rates,” Brewster said. “A lot of the residents in McDowell County are elderly, they’re on fixed incomes, and water’s a basic need. You have to have that.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mavis Brewster, General Manager of the McDowell County Public Service District.

Brewster said the PSD has some momentum toward expanding water services in the county. They’ve cobbled together what they can from state and federal agencies, but there’s nowhere near enough funding to meet their needs.  

Top priorities for construction this spring are for the towns of Keystone and Coalwood.

In Keystone, the risk of bacterial contamination is high enough that since 2012 residents have been under a continual advisory to boil their water for safety. Coalwood, where the PSD is located, is slated to be the first area covered by a new sewage treatment system. Three towns in McDowell County — Welch, War, and Bradshaw — have their own sewage treatment systems, but none of the 3,300 customers served by McDowell PSD have sewer service. 

Brewster says some of the communities have pipes that collect sewage but then send it straight into the nearest river or creek. That’s been the situation in Coalwood, but even that system has deteriorated further since the coal company that built it pulled out and stopped maintaining it. The collection network has issues with clogging and backing up, flooding homes with sewage. 

Neighbors in Need

Chauncy and Melissa have been asking questions of old timers among their neighbors, with special interest in ones who’d worked in the mine below their water table. Among them, Chauncy recounted, were at least a couple who have since died, and who said they never would have worked in that mine if they’d known it could poison their own water. 

One neighbor whose water contains high levels of lead and arsenic is suing a coal company, and also fighting to get any damages covered by her homeowners insurance. She’s shared photos of severe rashes and chemical burns that she claims came from exposure to the water. 

Chauncy and Melissa say they wish they knew who they could sue, but there are too many companies involved in the mines and gas wells around them to know who to hold accountable, especially since many of the operations have complicated corporate histories. 

Outside Owners

Chauncy Easterling says it’s his understanding that most of the people who own the local coal and gas operations live in distant cities. “Chicago, New York, places like that,” he explains. “I’d like to see them come in here and clean it up. I’d say they ain’t even rich enough to fix what damage has already been done.”

He said those same companies often own the land that many many of his neighbors rent, which is one reason that many are afraid to speak out. People are worried that they’ll get evicted or have their property condemned. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Gas infrastructure is common in Panther Wildlife Management Area.

These concerns about absentee land ownership are woven into the roots of many of the region’s problems.

In 1979, teams of academics, community organizations, and local individuals across Appalachia worked together to conduct a land ownership study. Large landowners were assessed in eighty counties across six states. The study revealed high proportions of absentee corporate owners, often paying low tax rates on their holdings.

In McDowell County, for example, more than three-quarters of the land and more than 90% of the mineral rights were held by absentee owners at the time. The five largest owners included a range of timber and mining companies, all based in other states. 

A new land study is currently in development, and organizers are seeking funding to do an updated survey of land and mineral ownership in Appalachia. 

Based on what records are available, it seems the overall picture has stayed the same. Outside companies own large amounts of Appalachia’s land and resources. The business model is extractive not just in taking fossil fuels out of the ground, but also in taking wealth away from the region. 

With little local control over the land, widely depleted sources of natural wealth, a range of work and environment related health issues, it’s no wonder that so many Appalachian communities are struggling to build new economies and keep themselves afloat.

Funding Prospects

President Donald J. Trump campaigned with promises of major infrastructure spending, and the White House has frequently touted “Infrastructure Week” initiatives. But so far those have not resulted in major new projects or funding. The topic has since faded from prominence among the president’s talking points. 

Prominent Democrats have called for a “Green New Deal” to include massive infrastructure spending, including on water systems. The Green New Deal bill introduced by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year would “guarantee universal access to clean water,” but some fellow Democrats question the bill’s costs and the legislation faces stiff Republican opposition.

More immediately, coalfield communities have been focused on getting funding from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund, which is supported by a fee on coal companies and used to fix damages caused before enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Regulation Act. 

A bipartisan proposal known as the RECLAIM Act would speed the rate of spending that AML money and expand the scope of funding to include projects like water infrastructure that can help communities and their economies. A few pilot projects following a similar model have been included in recent federal budgets. 

What’s Underground

The Easterlings say they’ve never sold their mineral rights, so no mining company should have had the right to mine beneath their home. But core samples drilled deep from the earth show that the coal had been mined underneath them anyway. The family somewhat expected this, having seen dishes fall out of the cabinet from shakes and jolts when, they presume, pillars were being pulled in a mineshaft below them, allowing the cavity to collapse. Chauncy says this kind of “robbing coal” is commonplace. “It’s underground. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

The collapsed coal seams have been punctured by gas wells. No one knows what’s still in the old mine voids. From scouting around the mine entrances and talking to friends who used to work in the mines, Chauncy and Melissa have come to believe it’s likely that heavy equipment, batteries, and other industrial trash was left behind in the mine. They’re also concerned that refuse from a coal washing plant — a dark toxic sludge known as slurry — might have been pumped into the abandoned mine, which is a common practice for disposing of the waste. There’s no official record of slurry being injected in the area, but the Easterlings have heard that the mine below them was used for dumping by a nearby coal washing plant. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chet Blankenship was buried in the lawn beside his home.

There have also been dozens of gas wells drilled near this web of mines. Some older gas wells don’t show up on official maps because they were not properly permitted or have no identifiable owner. 

Some of the wells in the area are from conventional drilling but records show others used fracking, which pumps water and chemicals into the ground, opening up cracks from which gas can be drawn. 

Once a well stops producing it is supposed to be sealed. But at least some of the older wells around the Easterlings were left unplugged, with just an abandoned pipe sticking out of the ground. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chauncy Easterling looks into an abandoned gas well.

The Easterlings say that their water started to change soon after nearby gas wells were shut down. At first the water started to smell, then little bits of dark rock dust appeared, and then before long it was running dark brown.

Chauncy worked for years as a miner and then as a boss in underground coal mines. He says it wasn’t unusual for the mine to run into an area that had already been mined even though it was outside any other mine’s permit boundary. 

Once, he said, a crew working under him cut into a gas well which hadn’t been on any of their maps. He and Melissa both remember that as a terrifying time. But shades of fear color much of Chauncy’s memories of working underground. Coal miners get paid not just to produce coal, but to regularly put themselves in danger. 

Given today’s record rates of severe black lung disease, it’s no exaggeration to say Chauncy and other miners have been getting paid to accept that their lungs will likely get scarred by coal and rock dust. 

Chauncy took a buyout offer in 2013, partly because his health and breathing had started to noticeably decline. The buyout came with six months of severance pay, which he used to get certified as a commercial truck driver. He’s applied for black lung compensation, but was told it may be five years before he’d start receiving any benefits. 

Chauncy got out of the mines, but he and his family still fear for their health. Their home is surrounded by remnants of fossil fuel extraction and the lasting legacy of environmental degradation.  

This story was made possible with funding from the Abrams Foundation, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Meet The Coal Town Betting Big On Outdoor Recreation  Monday, Sep 30 2019 

Fred Ramey

Standing on the breezy outlook at Flag Rock Recreation Area, Norton City Manager Fred Ramey is taking in the panoramic view of downtown Norton, Virginia. The brick building-lined streets are framed by the verdant, rolling Appalachian mountains. Jagged, brown scars from mountaintop mining operations can be seen in the distance, reminders of the region’s history of coal production.

“It’s a great overlook of the city, and people really are surprised when they get up here at the view,” he says. “It’s truly beautiful, and it’s unique. It’s something that we have that not everyone else has.”

This view — and Norton’s abundance of nature and outdoor recreation opportunities — are what Ramey and others here are hoping will be the next chapter in the region’s history.

Fred RameyBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Norton City Manager Fred Ramey poses at Flag Rock Recreation Area.

The first chapter was coal.

Norton was named in the 1890s after the president of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. The community of about 4,000 sits in Wise County, which borders eastern Kentucky. Coal has been mined in these mountains for more than 140 years.

But since 2008, coal production has fallen by about 50 percent in Virginia. The trends look similar across the Ohio Valley. Over the last decade, coal production decreased more than 65 percent in Kentucky and Ohio, and decreased roughly 40 percent in West Virginia.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

“In a certain way, our community has found itself at another intersection due to the loss of coal,” Ramey said. “And that’s when we had to really start thinking differently.”

Norton, like many regional communities, began looking at how to diversify its coal-based economy. One resource it has in abundance is nature.

Recreation Opportunities

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The city is located near Jefferson National Forest and Stone Mountain. Its peak, High Knob, is the wettest area in Virginia and the area is rich in biodiversity. For example, more than 20 species of salamander are known to live in the region.

In the 1970s, Norton began developing the Flag Rock Recreation Area, a 1,000-acre park a few miles from downtown. Norton ramped up those efforts more recently and the park is a central piece of the city’s plan to reorient its economy to outdoor recreation. New campgrounds and hiking trails have been built. A visitor’s center that will be easily accessible from downtown is in the works.

The city has also built eight miles of mountain bike trails, with more in development.

“When you have mountain bikers come to your to your town, they’re going to come out of the woods and come down and frequent your restaurants,” Shayne Fields said. He’s trail coordinator for Norton. “If we get enough trails here then they’re going to come and stay multiple days. So, you’ll have patronage at your restaurants, your hotels, any little shops you have in town.”

bike trailsBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

New bike and hiking trails at Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton, Va.

Fields would know. An avid cyclist himself, he and his friends have traveled around the country in search of good mountain biking.

“Normally, when we go someplace, we come out of the woods hungry,” he said. “And the first thing you want to do is go find some really good fatty food and and a craft beer somewhere.”

Fields grew up in Norton. He can remember the heyday of coal and has seen the impact its decline has had on the region. Wise County is losing population. About 23 percent of its residents live under the poverty line and the region is often considered ground zero for the opioid epidemic.

Recreation isn’t a silver bullet, Fields said, but it could be a key part of the solution.

“If we want to get an industry here — something other than the coal industry, you know, since it’s probably not coming back — we’re going to have to provide some kind of environment here that’s going to make those young working people want to stay here,” he said. “If we’ve got a good recreational economy-based setup here, we’ll have venues for people to come and play.”

Transition Challenges

Researchers who study economic transitions in coal-dependent communities say diversification is not easy. Many of these communities are located in rural areas, isolated from cities and lacking their amenities. In some cases, political leaders cling to the idea of coal comeback, which stalls action.

“The biggest problem is the loss of employment, particularly of high wage jobs,” said Mark Haggerty, with the Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics. “And just as important is the loss of revenue that supports schools and libraries and local services that keep these communities vibrant and attractive places.”

Haggerty has been studying coal community transitions for a decade and said several communities have had success making the transition from mining to outdoor recreation. He pointed to Gallup, New Mexico, a former hard rock mining community, which has now designated itself “The Adventure Capital of New Mexico.” Due to its proximity to the New River Gorge and world class river rafting, Fayetteville, West Virginia, has boomed in recent years.

get outside in NortonBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Norton, Virginia has launched a “Get Outside” campaign showcasing its natural resources.

Recreation can be a tool, and a powerful one for coal-dependent communities seeking to diversify their economies, but shouldn’t be the end goal, Haggerty said.

“Recreation is really a means to an end,” he said. “So what a recreation strategy does for you is it makes your community more attractive, and it has to be set within a broader economic development strategy that includes making sure you have broadband connectivity, making sure you have good schools and healthcare in place and other kinds of cultural amenities.”

The cost of doing business in coal-dependent communities can also be higher due to the legacy costs left by the coal industry, said Chelsea Barnes, the new economy program manager for the environmental group, Appalachian Voices.

“There are safety hazards or health hazards, or they’re lands that are just not ready for a new business to come and build,” she said. “And we have to make sure that the land that people are visiting is safe, and the water they’re drinking is safe, before you invite large crowds of people to come and visit.”

Federal Role

Norton City Manager Ramey said the city is clear-eyed about the limitations of its budding outdoor recreation industry. In addition to questions about mine cleanup, some have expressed concerns over the wages of tourism-related jobs — selling hiking gear or serving beer often pays less than the mining jobs of the past.

“We’re not saying that tourism is going to be our answer, but we believe it can be part of the solution,” he said. “For a small community to have this kind of asset, you know, is a phenomenal opportunity for us, and it has to play into the discussion as we discuss our community’s future.”

On the other side of town, Norton is engaged in another economic diversification effort. With a federal Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program grant, the city is converting a 200-acre, vacant surface coal mine into an industrial park. Ramey said they hope the space will attract manufacturing and technology companies. University of Virginia’s College at Wise is nearby, providing an educated workforce. Once completed, the project is expected to create 63 jobs.

Without federal investment, Ramey said, the city’s efforts to diversify would be greatly hampered.

“Without those types of opportunities, the hole we would be digging ourselves out of would become so much deeper,” he said. “It acts as a lifeline to a certain extent having resources, not just the financial resources, but the people resources that these agencies provide, to come in and help.”

The Woodbooger Effect

Norton has also held help from an unlikely source. In 2011, Animal Planet filmed an episode of its program “Finding Bigfoot” in southwest Virginia.

A local legend about a bigfoot-style creature, dubbed the “Woodbooger,” got national exposure.

“No one even knew they had been here,” Ramey said. Soon, tourists in search of the “Woodbooger” were flocking to the area. Norton leaned in. In 2014, the city declared Flag Rock Recreation Area a “Woodbooger Sanctuary.” Local businesses pitched in to buy a larger-than-life Woodbooger statue. The local hardware store downtown does a steady business selling t-shirts with the hairy creature’s likeness.

woodbooger statueBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Woodbooger statue in the Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton, Va.

A Woodbooger Festival in October draws hundreds of visitors.

It’s hard to measure if the region’s nascent efforts to boost tourism are working yet. But Ramey points to lots of anecdotal evidence, including multiple trail races that have sprung up in recent years.

On a recent visit to top of the High Knob Observation Tower, Ramey turns in a slow circle pointing to Virginia’s neighbors. Four states are visible on a clear day from this perch, 4,200 feet in elevation.

“West Virginia would be that way,” he says. “Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, is that way. Tennessee and North Carolina is that direction And of course Kentucky over there.”

Down in the parking lot, Ramey smiles.

“Interesting fact, at Flag Rock, we had two cars there from North Carolina, and at the tower, we have two vehicles here from Florida,” he says. “So, I would say that’s a sign that the tourism efforts are paying off.”

While ‘Zombie’ Mines Idle, Cleanup And Workers Remain In Limbo Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

The sound of metal banging against metal broke the calm on the high mesa separating Colorado’s Paradox and Big Gypsum valleys. An old rusted headframe marked the entrance to an abandoned uranium mine that, from a distance, looked as if its workers were simply off on a lunch break.

Jennifer Thurston, a local environmentalist, paused at the edge of the dirt road, wondering what caused the noise. Then she walked closer, finding ample evidence of the site’s long disuse. Ore sat in a hopper, likely untouched since the mine — known as Van 4 — last produced in 1989. Any loose metal and wiring had long since been stripped from two buildings, one of which looked ready to collapse.

“They’re just sitting out there doing nothing,” Thurston said of the uranium mines dotting southwestern Colorado. “They’re zombies.”

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Jennifer Thurston, an activist with the Information Network for Responsible Mining, tours the long-idled Van 4 mine. She won a court ruling in July that called for cleanup to begin.

Meanwhile, about 1,500 miles away, out-of-work coal miners spent weeks this summer protesting, camped out on Kentucky railroad tracks, demanding a paycheck they earned but lost when their operator went bankrupt. Though separated by a generation, along with most of a continent, these Eastern miners are linked to their Western counterparts by a seismic shift in the nation’s electricity generation.

Their mines once fueled the coal and nuclear power plants that kept America’s lights on. Now, cheaper natural gas and renewables are helping push them into the red.

But instead of properly closing the mines, their owners are idling them indefinitely, throwing workers into limbo and side-stepping legally mandated, but costly, environmental cleanup.

Several dozen U.S. uranium mines and more than 150 coal mines sit idle and have not produced for years, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. Also idled long-term are facilities such as processing plants, including more than 40 in the coal industry. Mine owners have exploited regulatory loopholes to warehouse their operations, changing the status of their permits on paper while little to no activity happens on the ground.

Mining is a cyclical, boom-and-bust industry, so state and federal laws allow companies to pause work while prices rebound. In the coal industry, where the relevant permit status is usually called “temporary cessation,” this pause rarely has a cap — although regulators attempt to track the number that have been idled for at least three years. In uranium mining, where operations usually wait in “standby,” the limits differ by state — 10 years in Colorado but indefinitely in Utah if “good cause” is shown, for instance.

But many of the mines identified in this investigation have remained “temporarily” paused for decades at a time, despite occasional increases in commodity prices.

And most will likely never produce again.

Uranium and coal are the mines most often idled for long periods, but the investigation also identified about 120 quarries and five Western gold mines paused for three or more years.

Mine owners argue they’re operating within the law, saying higher prices will eventually rescue them. Though government regulators have at times attempted to crack down, their hands are often tied. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which oversees coal mining, began rewriting weak federal regulations in 1991; faced with industry pushback, it never finished. The agency killed a more recent effort two months after President Donald Trump took office.

Regulators acknowledge that some companies have abused vague laws. “There were applications where a company had applied to get a temporary cessation status, and they were just trying to keep from having to do any further mining or reclamation,” said Davie Ransdell, a retired Kentucky coal mine inspector.

The Four Corners region — where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet — is home to much of the country’s historical uranium industry, now largely dormant. These sites add to the air and water pollution and low-grade radioactivity that have been linked to local health problems for decades. In Central Appalachia, heavily mined for 150 years, the omnipresent but dying coal industry has sheared off mountaintops and buried streams.

Larry Bush, a retired coal miner and mine inspector who lives in southwestern Virginia near idled operations, is among those fed up with the lack of cleanup.

“They’re destroying everything on Earth and under it,” he said.

Looney Ridge3Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.

Radioactive Legacy

Remnants of America’s nuclear past litter the Grants Mining District in northwest New Mexico: signs warning of radioactivity, a spiked drill bit outside the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants, businesses offering to help retired miners get U.S. Department of Labor health benefits.

Mount Taylor — “Tsoodzil” to the Navajo Nation — towers over the landscape. At the base of the 11,305-foot-tall inactive volcano sits the Mount Taylor Mine, idled in 1990 and allowed to flood

The heyday of Southwestern uranium mining lasted just 30 years. Much of the industry, including this mine, has since remained in standby.

The country’s last operational underground uranium mine shut in 2015, and open-pit mines haven’t produced in decades. Only one mill in Utah and four in-situ-leach operations, in which ore is dissolved belowground and pumped up, are still active. Two other mills and 15 in-situ-leach sites are either officially in standby or not producing. The American uranium industry employed only 372 people last year, down from 1,120 two decades earlier. Production from U.S. uranium mines fell 85 percent during that period, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At current prices, mining uranium in the Four Corners remains untenable.

But now the Mount Taylor Mine is reopening, at least on paper. Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, has been fighting the long-idled mine in court. “What we’re asking for is what the Legislature demands: that the mine either start producing or it start reclaiming,” he said, speaking at his home office, boxes of paperwork and his dog’s chew toys competing for space. Out front, a bumper sticker on his car said, “Uranium — Leave it in the ground.”

The Mount Taylor Mine’s first standby permit was issued in 1999. That means this October the site exhausts the maximum 20 years of inactivity New Mexico allows. In December 2017, the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division, later backed up by the New Mexico Mining Commission on appeal, allowed the mine to re-enter “active” status even though the mining company’s application noted it required eight years to restart production.

Jantz said state regulators “seem to bend over backwards to accommodate the mining interests’ needs, at the same time minimizing, belittling and, a lot of times, ultimately dismissing community concerns.”

Susan Torres, spokeswoman for the state Environment Department, wrote in a statement that companies can’t clean up their site while in standby. The mining division “approved the Permittee’s proposal to resume active status for the purpose of undertaking partial reclamation operations,” she wrote.

In its court filings, General Atomics subsidiary Rio Grande Resources, which owns the Mount Taylor Mine but didn’t make anyone available to comment, said the plaintiffs spread “revisionist history” and that “in light of the several intervening permit actions that have long since become final,” standby status didn’t begin when mining stopped. In an appellate decision in late July, a state court affirmed the state mining agency’s decision to allow the non-producing mine to switch its permit status to “active.”

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

A sign warns of an abandoned uranium mine. Two such mines, in addition to a former mill site, surround the Red Water Pond Road Community in the Navajo Nation.

Twenty miles southeast, the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine, once the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine, is now a Superfund site. In the broader Four Corners region, the U.S. Department of Energy is supposed to clean up more than 20 such Cold War relics, from former mills to waste piles. Some leak arsenic, lead, uranium and other toxic substances into groundwater. Recently, hoofprints were found leading from an unfenced pollution control pond near Slick Rock, Colorado, indicating that cattle likely drink from it.

Just inside the southeastern corner of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, an unsettling sign hangs from barbed wire: “DANGER. ABANDONED URANIUM MINE,” a pile of mine waste looming behind it. Residents here in the Red Water Pond Road Community are surrounded by two abandoned uranium mines and a mill.

A cold wind blew dust across the landscape from the pale yellow mounds of waste. Some landed on a modest home where a trickle of cars pulled up one morning in May, carrying researchers from the University of New Mexico and the Southwest Research and Information Center. They’d come to collect blood and urine samples for a project studying whether zinc supplements could reduce the impacts of exposure to the heavy metals in uranium mine waste.

Living around or working in uranium mines can worsen, or even trigger, autoimmune disorders, kidney disease, respiratory issues, hypertension and cancer. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the University of New Mexico and Navajo agencies found that Navajo Nation citizens, including infants, had elevated levels of uranium in their bodies.

Paul Robinson, Southwest Research and Information Center’s research director, has tracked the industry for more than 40 years. While the New Mexico Mining Act mandates that waste rock and other infrastructure be stabilized before entering standby status, it allows operators to delay reclamation while mining is paused, he said.

“Leaving the wastes that are generated at a mine uncovered is one of the ways to ensure airborne or waterborne release,” Robinson said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Thompson Bell, a member of the Navajo Nation, spent five years as a mechanic in a uranium mine. Many of his coworkers have since died from cancer, he says.

Thompson Bell, a member of the Navajo Nation who spent five years as a mechanic in a uranium mine, grew up here and returned for the study. He said many of his mining coworkers died from lung cancer. The sheep and cattle that used to graze here have all but disappeared, the flocks given up for fear of contamination.

“The thing about uranium, we found out: It destroys humans and land,” Bell said.

Opinion remains split locally about whether the return of relatively high-paying mining jobs — if that ever happened — would be worth the human and environmental consequences. Christine Lowery, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a commissioner for the county where the Mount Taylor Mine is located, said she welcomes a cleaner economy.

“Those mines were open for one generation,” she said. “The legacy lasts forever.”

‘Wolves are at my door’

More than 20 years ago, Todd Adams followed his father, uncles and grandfathers into the coal mines of Harlan County, Kentucky. The area has a history of bloody labor fights. But even so, he was shocked by what happened after his employer filed for bankruptcy protection on July 1: Blackjewel quietly clawed his final paycheck out of his bank account.

Blackjewel is part of a private coal empire until recently owned by Jeff Hoops, an avid user of temporary cessation. Workers around the country lost their jobs and final paychecks when several of his companies, including another operator called Revelation Energy, sought bankruptcy protection.

“If I can work in this industry another 20 years, that’s good for me,” said Adams. He participated in this summer’s railroad protest but believes the industry will disappear from Harlan within a few decades. “But this younger generation, I don’t know what the county holds for them.”

U.S. coal production has fallen by a third in the past decade, and temporary cessation has emerged as an escape route for cash-strapped owners. One in five non-abandoned coal mines now sits idle. Hoops’ companies have idled coal operations more often and for longer than nearly anyone, and the Blackjewel and Revelation bankruptcy proceedings offer a master class in avoiding liability in a dying industry.

Miners_On_Tracks-63 (1)Curren Sheldon

Near the scene of the miners’ protest in Harlan Co., KY.

Central Appalachia — covering portions of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — was once the heart of U.S. coal. Its share of production halved in the past 15 years, and as the industry dissolved, the region became the epicenter of long-term idling. About half the country’s 415 idled coal mines and related facilities, and half of those idled for more than three years, are located here, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data. That’s likely an undercount, but state and federal data are incomplete and not often comparable.

Long-term idling brings huge layoffs. Coal mines and the plants serving them that have been idled for at least three years had 85 percent fewer full-time employees after switching into idle status than they did a year before, Public Integrity’s analysis found. Management often promises that jobs will quickly return, miners say, encouraging workers to stay in towns with few other prospects.

This mainly happens in the East; out West, just eight coal operations sit idle, with only three workers still employed between them.

Union mines are not immune to idling and benefit losses, but some union contracts grant members call-back rights if their mines reopen and priority to transfer to other operations under the same owner, if not.

Glenn Sykes, a Vietnam veteran, spent 32 years mining Central Appalachian coal. Even though the industry was stronger then, Sykes wasn’t a union miner, and whenever one job dried up, the company’s support was “cut off right then. All my benefits were gone.”

“They’d say this job was gonna last 20 years. You were lucky if it lasted three. I was always moving around from job to job,” Sykes said. He has silicosis, a deadly lung disease likely caused by the fine dust kicked up in mines, and is fighting to preserve his benefits.

Data before the early 2000s was spotty, but it appears to indicate an uptick in temporary cessation during the 1990s. As the industry wanes, so too does the number of producing mines. Fifteen years ago, 61 percent of coal mines were producing, not including abandoned sites, which were largely jettisoned before the federal coal mining law was passed in 1977. That number has since fallen to 42 percent.

And though coal regulators knew that temporary cessation could be used as a loophole, they failed to enact meaningful changes.

First in 1991 and again in 2011, Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE, proposed to write new rules to better regulate the practice. The first attempt was withdrawn a year later after the mining industry and several state agencies called it unnecessary. The second attempt was halted by the Trump administration.

Internal notes made by OSMRE staff in 2010, recently obtained by Public Integrity, showed that not-so-temporary closures were bedeviling regulators around the country. A survey sent to all state and federal agencies overseeing coal mining found that a majority “experienced problems administering temporary cessation. Most States believe there should be a maximum time limit.”

The agency’s Tennessee office told OSMRE officials, “The temporary cessation concept has been abused for years by operators desiring to retain viable permits but not conducting mining operations” and that efforts to compel either reclamation or mining “have failed for lack of … clearly defined regulations or policies.”

As the industry shrinks, long-term idling can be used as a stepping stone to forfeiture, passing cleanup responsibilities to the government and taxpayers. That may happen to some of Hoops’ mines. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Hoops and his family walked away from most of their companies.

Hoops specialized in scavenging, buying often unprofitable mines after a series of bankruptcies hit the country’s largest coal companies in 2015 and 2016.

Twenty-one of his coal mines and related facilities were temporarily idled as of mid-August, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data, seven of them for at least three years.

idle-mines-by-age-v5Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Potential buyers appeared interested last month in some of the mines owned by his companies in bankruptcy proceedings. But what would happen to the rest was unclear. If unpurchased, they would likely fall to states to reclaim — first with the inadequate funds companies set aside for that purpose, and after that with taxpayer money. At least 16 additional Central Appalachian operations owned by other companies in bankruptcy are idle.

Records from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet showed that more than 20 percent of permits idled in the state are tied to Hoops or were until July’s bankruptcy.

Cabinet spokesman John Mura said state legal staff is actively engaged in the bankruptcy proceedings, adding that the state is not concerned about temporary cessation because only 10 percent of Kentucky coal permits are currently idle.

Reached by phone, Hoops declined to comment. Numbers listed to Lexington Coal Co., where his wife Patricia is an executive, were disconnected.

About 1,100 Central Appalachian miners lost their jobs during the bankruptcy. Brandon Fleming, a Virginia miner who lived and worked not far from Harlan County, was one of several who said their employer sharply cut costs beforehand. Fleming said that workers were told: “If you find a pair of safety glasses lying in the mud, if you need a pair, wipe them off and use them. If you need gloves, go buy your own. And if you didn’t like it, go get another job.”

When he cashed what turned out to be a bad check from Blackjewel, his bank initially threatened legal action against him. He’s since been given several months to pay the money back, money that he earned. Now he’s working at a car dealership for half the pay and three times the commute.

“I’ve done lost just about everything, and the wolves are at my door,” Fleming said. His wife’s car was repossessed, and he couldn’t afford to buy his fourth-grade daughter new school clothes. “It breaks my heart.”

Paperwork shuffling

The calendar pinned to the wall read “April 2009,” although it was actually May 2019 at the abandoned office of the Sunday Mine, 17 miles southwest of Naturita, Colorado. Cobwebs covered an empty desk in the next room, and paperwork spilled out of a box onto the dusty floor.

“This mine is not going to come back to life,” Thurston, the activist, said as she viewed the mess.

The Sunday Mine is part of a complex of five uranium operations owned by Western Uranium & Vanadium subsidiary Pinon Ridge Mining. Now, president and CEO George Glasier, a titan of American uranium mining, hopes to restart them after years of idling.

Legal battles are being fought across the Uravan Mineral Belt in southwestern Colorado. Modern uranium miners, including Glasier, want to revive their operations, while Thurston, a mine watchdog with the Information Network for Responsible Mining, believes final reclamation should begin. As she whipped her car through the region’s valleys, she noted with a flash of dark humor that she’s stared at the same piles of waste rock her entire life.

In July, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with the environmental group in one case. A panel of judges ruled that the Van 4 mine — the old site above Paradox, near the Sunday Mine and also owned by Glasier — had overstayed its allotted time in temporary cessation.

In the Uravan Mineral Belt, 31 lease tracts managed by the Department of Energy cover about 25,000 acres. A federal court in Colorado lifted a long-standing injunction against new mining activity in March. Two months later, the mines were still far from production. At one called C-JD-5, equipment and buildings were badly damaged from years of theft.

Republican state Sen. Don Coram is part-owner of Gold Eagle Mining, which holds C-JD-5 and several other mines that haven’t produced since he bought in more than 20 years ago. Over breakfast in May, he said it comes down to the markets.

“It’s a big waiting game right now,” he said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Bullet holes pockmark a sign showing the location of buried uranium mill waste in southwest Colorado.

C-JD-5 is “abandoned,” according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data. But the Department of Energy considers it “actively leased.” Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety records show Coram switched the permit out of “final reclamation” in the most recent annual report.

That’s why environmental activists call such operations “zombie mines” — it’s impossible to say whether they’re alive or dead.

Mining law’s complexity makes this possible.

Coal mining falls under a federal law that mandates only that mining companies notify regulators when a permit will be in temporary cessation longer than 30 days. Twenty-one of the 23 states still producing coal wrote their own laws. But some barred themselves from enacting rules stricter than the federal government’s, and most long-term idling occurs in those states.

The federal government leaves it to the states to impose limits on uranium-mine idling. The resulting patchwork of state rules are largely anchored on a 147-year-old federal law aimed more at promoting mining than managing it.

Over time, uranium production has dropped, stockpiles remained large, nuclear power’s share of the country’s electricity production fell, and power plants bought more uranium from overseas. Still, mine owners hope for a revival.

Uranium producers banked on a petition to Trump that would have effectively subsidized the industry by compelling 25 percent of uranium used in American power plants to be produced domestically. But in July, the administration announced that importing uranium didn’t threaten national security, punting the question to a working group for further review.

While the industry awaits a decision, companies hold off on final reclamation. Groundwater monitoring at the Sunday Mine Complex has found heavy metals, although Glasier says the mine is above the water table and any water problems are naturally occurring.

“Once you reclaim something, it’s a lot harder to start it,” Glasier said at his ranch, which covers tens of thousands of acres along the San Miguel River. The impressive home he purchased with the profits from a successful mining career stands at the end of a long tree-lined driveway. “Once you shut the industry down,” he said, “it’s going to take you 10, 15 years and a high price to bring it back.”

Both Glasier and Coram believe another element might save their mines first. Vanadium, which often occurs alongside uranium in the Uravan, can be used in powerful batteries. Glasier believes his mines have high concentrations; he recently restarted sampling at the Sunday Mine Complex.

Neither man considers himself part of the industry’s history of pollution. They said they would willingly begin reclamation when their temporary cessation permits run out, if uranium and vanadium prices haven’t risen enough.

“The reason it got so messed up to begin with: It was totally the rush of the federal government,” Coram said. “We were in a wartime situation and were going to produce this at all costs.”

Cleaning up after the governor

As uranium mining pockmarked Colorado’s valleys, the coal industry eviscerated low peaks and forests in the Appalachian Mountains.

“Remembering how it was and how it is is depressing as hell,” said Bush, the former coal miner and mine inspector.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Larry Bush, a retired coal miner and mine inspector, grew up hunting squirrels on this hill near Keokee, Virginia, which was since stripped and has been only partially reclaimed by companies linked to the governor of West Virginia.

Except for time spent serving in Vietnam, Bush is a lifelong resident of southwest Virginia, where the commonwealth melts into Central Appalachian coal country. Area streams once teemed with minnows, he said. Now they’re choked by silt running off unreclaimed mines.

He grew up hunting squirrels on a hill above his home, but a strip mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family now dominates the landscape. Today, Bush lives just up the road, where the hill above that home, too, has been leveled by a Justice operation.

Both mines have sat inactive for years at a time, fouling local waterways. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and four states filed legal action in 2016 against Justice and his companies, listing thousands of violations relating to inadequate environmental monitoring and water pollution, including elevated levels of iron and manganese flowing from these mines.

Justice and his family idle more permits than any other U.S. coal mine owners, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of federal data. Miles of ridgeline on the Virginia-Kentucky border lie barren after Justice mines went dormant.

It’s difficult to separate the environmental and health impacts caused by idled mines from those triggered by active operations, said Emily Bernhardt, a professor at Duke University who researches human impacts on ecosystems. Modern surface mining in Central Appalachia has been linked to health problems ranging from cancer to birth defects. And in a 2012 study, Bernhardt estimated that surface mining impaired about one in three miles of southern West Virginia’s rivers.

But idling poses other risks, Bernhardt said. When toxic waste piles — either solid rock or liquid confined behind earthen dams — are left unaddressed, the potential increases for “catastrophic failure,” she said, even as opportunities to use the land for new purposes are delayed.

“You can’t actually make any improvements when you’re just on hold,” she said.

In Central Appalachia, tens of thousands of acres, mostly former forests, lie barren at these idled coal operations, according to a Public Integrity analysis of satellite data compiled by environmental group SkyTruth. Communities that hope to grow outdoor recreation or other post-mining industries can’t move forward.

Ransdell, the former Kentucky mine inspector, said regulators can reject applications for idled status if they catch noncompliance and ongoing pollution. But problematic mines can slip through the cracks. She recalled a permit in eastern Kentucky that was put into temporary cessation for a decade because its underground workings were on fire. And the longer that surface mines are left exposed, the more likely that acid will leak into waterways, ponds holding polluted runoff will overflow and massive waste impoundments destabilize. 

“Coal companies know [long-term idling is] a viable option,” Ransdell said. “It’s something that can be abused easily because there are vague guidelines.”

Thirty-three mines and a preparation plant owned by the Justice family’s companies were idled as of mid-August, and 15 of them have been idled for at least three years, according to data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. One mine in McDowell County, West Virginia — Justice’s home state — has been paused since 2010.

And in Virginia — where two of his family’s coal operations have been idled on and off since 1984 — the Justice companies have only one mine still producing. They’re years behind on several of the original cleanup deadlines the state set.

“The end goal is to meet environmental obligations required by law in the state of Virginia, so we’ve given them dates and specific instructions of what needs to be reclaimed by when,” said Tarah Kesterson, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Idling permits is “standard practice” in the industry, a spokesman for the Justice companies, Brian Walsh, said in an emailed statement. “The Justice companies are proud to be one of the region’s leading job creators and environmental leaders within the coal industry” and have reclaimed several thousand acres in recent years, he said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

A broken down bulldozer rusts in 2018 on a Virginia strip mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family.

Regulators in Virginia have few options. Justice mine cleanup liabilities in Virginia total as much as $200 million, and taxpayers could get stuck with a large share of that if the state takes over. That’s because those companies have put up only about $51 million for cleanup if the operations are abandoned. Half of that amount would likely be worthless in that scenario because, state records show, it is backed against the value of the companies. A pool of money Virginia set up to close gaps like this at 150 permits across the state, including some of Justice’s, has less than $10 million in it.

The state requires that mines covered by that shared funding pool increase the amount of money they set aside for reclamation once they’re idled longer than six months. But funding shortfalls persist.

All told, nearly a third of permits in Virginia are in some degree of temporary cessation, according to Kesterson.

This makes Bush angry: It’s created wastelands, he said.

An August visit to the Justice mine above his childhood home found reclamation still unfinished. Puddles dotted the site. Grass and weeds poked up through the exposed rock, in stark contrast to the lush surrounding forest. Near the treeline, a broken-down bulldozer sat abandoned, rusting.

Mark Olalde reported and wrote this story, and Joe Yerardi produced the data analysis. Brittany Patterson, energy and environment reporter with the Ohio Valley ReSource, contributed to this article.

Mines That Change Owners Have Worse Safety Record, Audit Finds Thursday, Aug 22 2019 

A new federal government report shows that mines that changed ownership had worse safety records than mines where ownership did not change. According to an audit from the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General, mines that changed ownership during a 17-year period were nearly twice as likely to have safety violations, and five times as likely to report severe accidents in the same period. 

Mines that changed hands had on average 134 safety violations, compared with 43 safety violations at mines that did not change hands. 

That could have implications for the Ohio Valley, where a spate of coal bankruptcies has industry watchers worried about continued turmoil for coal producers and more turnover of mine ownership. 

The audit comes after investigations from the Ohio Valley ReSource and NPR into unpaid debts for mine safety violations by coal mine operators, notably the companies belonging to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s family. The Justice group’s mines owed more than $4 million in delinquent mine safety fines, and in May the Department of Justice filed a civil suit to recover those debts. 

According to an analysis of mine safety data by the ReSource, injury rates for miners working in delinquent underground coal mines are 31 percent higher than rates at mines that are not currently delinquent. 

The Inspector General’s audit concluded that the Mine Safety and Health Administration did not evaluate whether its penalty program was effective. MSHA also said evaluating the safety fine program would be difficult, as many factors contributed to each mine’s safety record. 

The report included coal mines and other types of mines MSHA categorizes as “metal and non-metal” mines, which makes it difficult to say what the data means specifically for Appalachian coal mining. Wes Addington, executive director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, said coal mining is more dangerous and more deadly than other forms of mining, so including other data obscures issues unique to coal mines. 

“There are so many metal/non-metal operations that it skews the information for coal operations in a way that makes the data not very useful,” Addington said. 

The audit also concluded that MSHA did not consider a miner operator’s record of safety fine debts when allowing the operator to open new mines. 

“What’s weird about the report is they want to come to the broad conclusion that the system of fines doesn’t affect safety,” Addington said. “And yet, towards the end, they want to make the point that MSHA should look at not issuing new mine IDs to companies that don’t pay their fines.” 

In a response to the audit, MSHA head David Zatezelo said federal regulations prevented the agency from considering previous safety records when assigning new mining permits, but committed to exploring ways to measure the success of its violation penalty program.

 

‘Bloody Harlan’ Revisited: Blackjewel Miners Draw On Labor History While Facing Uncertain Future Monday, Aug 12 2019 

Curtis Cress sat in the gravel beside a railroad track in Harlan County, Kentucky. Tall and thin with a long, black beard, Cress is every bit a coal miner, or, he was until a month ago.

“It’s part of my heritage, you know? My dad and papaws had always done it,” he said. “And I’m proud of that heritage.”

Cress had been at these railroad tracks for days, with little sleep. Not far down the rails sat a row of hopper cars filled with coal from his former employer, Blackjewel Coal.

In the last month, Cress and his fellow miners have gone from moving coal out of the ground to stopping coal in its tracks. Blackjewel’s chaotic bankruptcy filing on July 1 left about a thousand miners like Cress with bounced checks and unpaid bills, and largely in the dark about their future.

Aerials_Miners_On_Tracks-2Curren Sheldon

An aerial shot of the encampment that has grown up around the protest site.

Days turned into weeks, and miners had no way to know if they still had jobs, or health insurance, or access to their retirement savings.

On July 29, five miners saw an opportunity. A train full of coal was leaving a Harlan County loading facility. The five men clambered onto the railroad tracks to block the train. More than a week later, they hadn’t left.

“If they can move this train, they can give us our money!” miner Shane Smith said.

That rag-tag group quickly grew to a full-fledged protest camp, complete with solar showers, a chore list, and a rotating schedule of miners to hold the place down. Community members brought food. Politicians stopped by to make speeches.  Kids played cornhole on the tracks.

“We’re suffering, our kids are suffering, water’s getting cut off,” Austin Watts said. “As long as I gotta stay here, I’ll stay.”

Miners_On_Tracks-37Curren Sheldon

Protesting Blackjewel miners in Harlan Co., KY.

Arnold Shepherd, a miner from Leslie County, Kentucky, was among those who said the protest recalled an earlier period in Harlan County history.

“This thing here, it puts you in mind of ‘Bloody Harlan,’ back years ago,” Shepherd said.

Bloody Harlan. The name comes from the nearly century-long and sometimes violent struggle between coal companies and workers seeking to unionize.

“Harlan is one of the locations used to undercut wage stability for the rest of the country,” Northern Illinois Univ. labor historian Rosemary Feurer said. Harlan miners started to organize in the 1920s, a struggle that culminated in a long and violent strike in 1931. Miners picketed again in the early 1970s, again sparking violence. “What the miners were saying is, we can’t be basically just extraction engines and robots and tools left to die of black lung,” Feurer said.

Today, the protest is peaceful. The union is largely gone from Kentucky mines. And the entire coal industry is a fraction of what it was decades ago. Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, though more chaotic than most, is just one of many recent shocks to a declining coal industry. Dozens of companies went under in the past decade, and despite a coal-friendly president rolling back regulations more have followed. In 2019 alone, BlackHawk Group LLC, Cambrian Coal LLC, and Cloud Peak Energy Inc. all went bankrupt.

With lower union representation and an expectation of more bankruptcies to come, miners’ advocates and industry watchers worry that coal miners and mining communities will suffer the brunt of the industry’s decline. The Blackjewel miners who took to the tracks are following in a long history of worker protest in Harlan County. They are also stepping into an uncertain future for themselves and their community.

Scene Of Labor Struggles 

“You have to look at ‘Bloody Harlan’ in a long history of a bloody coal industry,” said labor historian Feurer, who has written about the region and legendary labor organizer Mother Jones.

Feurer said the coal industry pushes the full cost of coal onto workers’ health, on workers’ wages, and on the environment. The United Mine Workers of America, Feurer said, arose from workers’ demands for better treatment.

Robert Gumpert, from the Appalshop Archive

Women of the Brookside women’s support group talk with tow truck operator at a roadblock in 1974.

“It’s not only bloody for the labor violence, but for the death toll,” she said, from mining accidents and black lung disease. “It’s more than most wars.”

The UMWA negotiated its first successful wage increase in 1898, and went on to fight for eight-hour workdays and standard measurement for coal. The union helped miners weather the mining industry’s boom and bust cycles, and many of the union’s hard-won health and safety standards are still in place today.

Mine operators viciously opposed miners’ efforts to unionize, particularly in Harlan County. In the bloody 1930s coal wars, miners known to be union members were fired and evicted from company-owned homes. Soon enough, most miners had gone on strike out of solidarity.

Conflict broke out again the 1970s in what was known as the Brookside strike. Two miners were shot, and one died in a strike that lasted over a year and resulted in a new contract.

Robert Gumpert, from the Appalshop Archive

Victory photo after the Highsplint mine voted to join the UMWA in 1974.

Labor Losses

But union membership is in decline across the country, and the miners’ union has declined faster than most. Between 1997 and 2017, overall mine employment in the Ohio Valley dropped by 50 percent. Union participation has declined much faster. Between 1997 and 2017, Ohio Valley miner participation in unions has dropped by 76 percent.

“The reason that unions have really been imperiled in the southern parts of the country,” said Feurer, “is because they’ve been told the only way the South can rise again is by being a non-union, anti-union reserve for companies that were moving from the unionized areas of the north.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Feurer said that even though the Blackjewel miners are acting without a union, their protest follows the tradition of labor action in the area.

“Putting their bodies on the lines is what I see is historically connected,” she said. “People who risk themselves, that is what has resonance to a long body of history.”

The Blackjewel miners still feel a strong sense of solidarity with their fellow workers. “If you work in the coal field, you spend more time underneath that mountain than you do with your own family,” said miner Shane Smith. “These men are like a brother to me.”

Some UMWA retirees and other union workers have joined the Blackjewel miners on the tracks in a show of solidarity.

UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said he thinks Appalachian coal miners lost their sense for the power of unions in the coal slump in the 1970s. Mine employment was low for nearly a full generation of workers entering the labor force, Smith said, effectively breaking the chain of stories passed from father to son, stories of how unions improved working conditions and fought for better wages.

By 2017 there were no union miners left working in Harlan County, and only a handful in all of Kentucky.

Phil Smith worries that a weak union puts miners at risk of losing protections that previous generations of miners fought for. “The minute that a government who is intent on doing away with many of these worker protections feels like they can without there being any political blow-back from doing it, they’re going to do it,” he said.

Policies like so-called “Right to Work” laws, which have been passed in 28 states, including Kentucky and West Virginia, threaten the economic viability of unions. Still, Smith finds hope in teachers’ strikes around the country, and efforts to unionize other workplaces. “I think we’re seeing a resurgence in people making sure they have a voice at work.”

Curren Sheldon

A quiet moment for miners and their supporters.

Chris Lewis was one of the first five Blackjewel miners who blocked that train on July 29. The bankruptcy has been a struggle, he said, but he and his wife have it better than do workers with young children.

Lewis has complicated views on unions. “I was raised union, and I believe in the union. But I also believe in a man’s right to feed his family, you know what I’m saying?”

He resents miners who call strikebreakers “scabs.” Still, Lewis thinks he and his coworkers wouldn’t be in this predicament if they had been in a union.

After his experience with Blackjewel, Lewis isn’t ready to give up on the industry. But he is giving up on Kentucky. Lewis leaves Kentucky later this month for a job in a coal mine in Alabama. In that new job, he’ll be a part of a union.

‘The end game’

The uncertainty many Blackjewel miners feel about their future is true for the coal industry as a whole. Declining demand and competition from cheap natural gas from fracking has led to the closure of eight coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley since 2010, with more planned to shut down in the future.

“No matter what policies are developed and put forward in D.C.,” said the UMWA’s Phil Smith, “the fact of the matter is, coal-fired power plants are closing.”

Additionally, renewable energy makes up an increasing share of the nation’s energy portfolio. For the first time this year, renewable energy exceeded coal in percentage of energy generated in the United States.

In 1997, there were about 18,000 coal jobs in Kentucky. In 2017, there were about 6,200. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, coal production has fallen most sharply in Central Appalachia compared to other coal-producing regions.

Kentucky Coal Association spokesperson Tyler White said his group is committed to fighting for the longevity of the industry.

“The coal industry is still struggling with a lot of over-burdensome regulations that were put in place under the previous administration,” he said. Most energy analysts contest that view, and point instead to the market forces driving coal’s decline.

Similarly, the UMWA’s Smith said that he’s not ready to give up on coal. He fears significant regulation to prevent further climate climate could put the coal industry out of business, and he views the union’s role as advocating for policies that would promote clean, safe coal mining and keep miners employed for generations.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy has been messier than most. But Clark Williams-Derry, the director of energy finance for Sightline Institute, a research organization based in Seattle, says we should expect more chaotic bankruptcies like it.

“We’re sort of in the early stages of the end game, I would say, of the coal economy,” he said.

Williams-Derry worries that in the chaos of Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, some mine lands may end up without money to pay for reclamation, and he thinks future bankruptcies may have the same result as fewer companies want to take on risky mines. The costs of worker pensions, land reclamation, and other debts may well be passed on to taxpayers, or left unpaid altogether.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” he said. “We don’t really know what happens when the industry is shrinking so rapidly that we see mines just simply abandoned.”

IMG_4328Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Blackjewel miners and supporters enter the federal courthouse in Charleston, WV.

Down The Line

A marathon bankruptcy hearing in federal court brought mixed news for the Blackjewel miners. The auction of Blackjewel properties attracted enough buyers to generate money to go toward some of the wages owed, and lawyers representing the miners were able to win some concessions from other Blackjewel creditors.

Still, when attorney Ned Pillersdorf addressed the protesting miners on the tracks, he was clearly managing expectations.

“You know I’ve told you that bankruptcy is kind of like a funeral home,” he said. “Nobody leaves happy.”

Kopper Glo, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based mining company that purchased some of Blackjewel’s Kentucky properties, has committed to pay $450,000 to cover miners’ wages. That is expected to cover about 35 percent of the total amount owed to Blackjewel workers. Kopper Glo has also said it hopes to rehire many of Blackjewel’s workers, though it has made no legal commitment to do so. Blackjewel miners worry Kopper Glo will pay less than Blackjewel did.

“I was a roof bolter, I made $25 an hour,” said Shane Smith. “A belt man, they make $22. A different company comes in, what’s to say everybody won’t make $20?”

Kopper Glo said it could not answer specific questions, but said in a press release that the company “has a plan to re-start certain operations and is confident this plan will bring jobs back to many of the former Blackjewel employees. Kopper Glo is also committed to funding to the portion of the back wages due to the employees.”

Miners_On_Tracks-63 (1)Curren Sheldon

Near the scene of the miners’ protest in Harlan Co., KY.

In days spent occupying the train tracks, the Blackjewel miners have plenty of time to consider what their future holds. Do they return to work and hope their new employer doesn’t meet the same fate as the last? Do they try to retrain in a new industry? Or do they look for another job, knowing they may never make as much money as they did in the mines?

“This ain’t a game, we ain’t a bunch of kids,” said miner Caleb Blevins. “We’re grown men with families. Around here in the Appalachian mountains, this is all we got, the coal mines. We’re too far in to try to go to college for 12 years. Our kids need us now, not in 10 years.”

Miner Tim Madden also just wants to get back to business as usual. “I think if they’d roll up here and issue us all a check, I’d be out of here, end of story.”

But Curtis Cress said he’s done with the industry. “You never know from one day to the next if you’re going to have a job,” Cress said. “They’ll get you used to making a whole lot of money and then take it away.”

A father of four, Cress is at risk of losing his home. He says he feels hopeless about what comes next, both for him and for central Appalachia. He thinks his best bet is to find work in manufacturing. He hopes his kids leave the region when they’re old enough.

The miners occupying the Harlan County train tracks say they’ll stand down when they see Kopper Glo’s money in their bank accounts. With mining starting up again in some of Blackjewel’s former mines, some men will likely be headed back underground.

But for many miners, and for the coal industry as a whole, it’s hard to know what’s coming down the tracks.

Benny Becker, Brittany Patterson and Jeff Young contributed to this story.