James Bowe, a lifelong resident of Whitesville, W.Va., knows the mountains around his home better than he knows himself. He’s seen friends and family buried there, and has devoted countless hours to protecting his loved ones’ resting places and the Indian burial grounds that stand alongside them. So when Bowe pulled up on his four-wheeler in early April and spotted a coal company drilling in the middle of what he says was a known, if unnamed, cemetery on White Oak Mountain, he was livid — and determined to stop them.

Mountaintop-removal mining marches its
way across West Virginia.

Photo: V. Stockman / ohvec.org

Knowing how quickly surface-mining operations can scrape away any trace of a mountain’s natural landscape, Bowe immediately filed a formal complaint with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. For the next three days, he waited anxiously for intervention. On the fourth day, a DEP officer arrived, but it was too late: There was nothing left of the headstones that had been there, and only a small section of border fence remained. The investigator’s report said he believed “a cemetery did exist at this site,” but concluded that the cemetery “was unknown to the core drilling company … and the West Virginia DEP when this permit was issued.”

Bowe was, and remains, incredulous. “I don’t see how the company wouldn’t have known — there was a tombstone sitting there,” he said later. “You can’t miss that. When you see crosses on top of something and sandstone markers, what do you usually associate that with?”

The DEP report indicates that the agency turned the matter over to Lora Lamarre, senior archaeologist at the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office, for a final decision. Contacted in late April, Lamarre said there was no record of this complaint.

Stories like Bowe’s have become a staple of local lore in Appalachia. There are hundreds of accounts of sunken graves, uprooted Indian and slave burial grounds, family cemeteries blown to smithereens and compacted into valley fills. Some of the tales have gained an almost mythical status, but residents and activists say they are disturbingly real.

Throughout the coal-rich land of southern West Virginia and eastern Ohio, they say, mining companies are damaging and even destroying burial sites. Industry leaders Massey Energy Company, Arch Mineral, and their subsidiaries are accused of drilling under, mining over, or raining sulfurous and acidic emissions down on tombstones and graves across the region.

“Many a known burial ground has been annihilated by drilling and blasting,” says Maria Gunnoe, a member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Such actions, say Gunnoe and other worried activists, are destroying the few pieces of these scarred mountains that locals can still call their own.

Just Mine All Around It

Much of the reported damage takes place along West Virginia State Route 3, which starts south of Charleston and runs along the Coal River. As it winds through coal country, the road and the skeletal settlements along it tell the story of the last quarter-century of mining in central Appalachia, says Peter Slavin, a Virginia-based writer who has covered the industry for more than a decade. Once brimming with life and the promise of prosperity, most of these communities now sit empty and broken. Failed businesses and rundown buildings stand like memorials to a more hopeful past.

Everything changed after Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, and the later amendments to it, requiring strict emissions guidelines for high-sulfur coal processing. Companies began to invest in low-sulfur bituminous coal, which can be easily extracted by blasting and scraping away the tops of mountains. With the rise of mountaintop-removal mining, entire towns have been relocated — in many cases forcibly evacuated — to allow better access to the coal seams running through these hills.

Stories of mining’s impact on communities here are nothing new. Coal companies have had a heavy presence in central Appalachia for more than 100 years. But the earth-moving dozers and evacuations associated with mountaintop removal have raised the stakes. Between 1939 and 2005, this form of mining claimed an estimated one million acres of West Virginia’s mountains. More than half of that occurred after 1992.

Because the coal-rich land that companies buy or lease often borders or encompasses communities that date back hundreds of years, companies inadvertently find themselves in possession of the generations-old family cemeteries that pepper the landscape. Though the law requires them to provide access to cemetery visitors and researchers, the plots are often inaccessible, either due to remote locations or heavy mining activity around them. By the time families with limited access or those who have moved away return to visit their ancestors, they often find that the roads have been closed — or worse, that the cemetery and graves no longer exist.

Larry Gibson inspects damage caused by
mining adjacent to his family cemetery.

Photo: Penny Loeb

Larry Gibson has been fighting surface mining and the companies who practice it for decades. His family’s land on West Virginia’s Kayford Mountain contains some of the richest coal seams in the area; after refusing countless opportunities to sell the property, he says, he has been threatened and even shot at. But Gibson will not budge. He stays to defend his home and defend landmarks like nearby Stover Cemetery. Though Stover is protected by the state’s historic preservation office, Gibson and his friend Elisa Young have become increasingly concerned about the mining activity creeping dangerously close to the cemetery’s border.

Stover sits on land now owned by Catenary Coal, and prospective visitors must obtain written permission from the company in advance. When Young and Gibson arrived for a visit last fall, they were refused entrance because guards could not find the email authorizing admission. After a few hours, they gained access, and Young was shocked at what she saw: about two-thirds of the gravestones were scraped to one side of the cemetery, and the wire perimeter fence was knocked over. Many of the graves, Young says, “were sinking into the ground because there were mining cracks, holes that were opening up because of the long wall mining that had been done underneath.”

Horrified, she contacted the state DEP, only to find that Catenary was technically following state regulations, which prohibit operations within 100 feet of a cemetery. States enforce mining regulations based on the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. A mining applicant who suspects or knows of an existing cemetery must commission an archaeological survey to determine the historical significance and boundaries of the plot before a permit can be obtained. But Young and other activists find the guidelines outdated and inadequate.

“Even when they follow the regulations, damage still [occurs], because they’re blasting around under these cemeteries, and it literally shakes the ground up,” says Judy Bonds, who heads Coal River Mountain Watch. “Even if we can get to a cemetery before the mining company, even if we point out one that needs saving, [the state will] tell us, ‘Yeah, OK, here’s this corner [for your cemetery].’ And to the coal companies, they’ll say, ‘Now just mine all around it.'”

The Best Unintentions

Raised in a family of miners, Bonds is no stranger to King Coal’s presence in Appalachia. But her activist awakening came just six years ago, after she discovered her grandson lying awake at night, planning his escape route in case the dam holding back the slurry pond above their hollow broke. When she finally moved away from Marfork, W.Va., in 2001, she and her family were the last of more than 50 families to leave. The century-old community is now little more than a ghost town.

Bonds still visits Marfork and neighboring Packsville, where many of her family members are buried, but each time she goes back, she finds it more difficult to access the cemeteries. Once inside, she says, she encounters “slippage and headstones falling over where they’ve blasted out the side of the mountains.” Bonds, who also says she’s seen graves sink due to mining, claims Massey once hired contract workers to fill in graves, thinking no one would notice the damage. (Representatives for Massey and Catenary did not respond to repeated requests for comment on these or other allegations.)

Those concerned about this issue say it’s not just earth-moving that’s the problem. Sarah Hamilton, a member of Coal River Mountain Watch, had to go through a safety class and sign a waiver absolving Massey of responsibility for her well-being before guards allowed her to enter the Marfork cemetery. Once inside, she saw “subsidence and ashy gray residue on the ground.” Activists believe the substance she saw at Marfork is the same coal dust that biologists have found in large quantities in the water and air around Massey’s Elk Run Coal Company processing facility near Sylvester, W.Va.

The coal dust piles up quickly on buildings, in homes, and on land around the plants. And the sulfur it contains, in addition to posing a potential public-health hazard, accelerates weathering on limestone and marble — two of the principle materials used to make tombstones.

Just across the West Virginia border in Ohio, Elisa Young and her friend Karen Werry, an amateur historian, have spent hours documenting the condition of cemeteries near their homes. Werry recently discovered that previously readable headstones had become illegible after just 10 years of exposure to the air. And Young has noticed unusual wear and tear on the headstones in her family cemetery, which houses more than 200 graves. Werry and Young attribute the erosion to increased local emissions from coal-processing facilities that have shifted to low-sulfur methods.

“Since they knocked the [high-sulfur] stacks down, [emissions stay] concentrated here,” Young says. “My theory is that it’s those emissions that are eating away the stones. You can smell the sulfur in the air.”

Between the pollution, the permitting process, and the informal nature of local cemeteries, it is hard to know how many have been affected by mountaintop removal. The historic preservation office estimates there are thousands of cemeteries in the state, but Lamarre says the office would need to “compile documents from many different agencies, as well as from each county’s circuit court” before it could even begin to guess how many have been affected by mining over the years.

“Certainly, there has been unintentional damage to cemeteries, but often this occurs when a cemetery is unmarked or poorly marked,” Lamarre said. “We have also heard about damage to cemeteries resulting from mine subsidence, but again, this is unintentional.”

Bonds takes exception to Lamarre’s readiness to make excuses for the coal companies, and feels the agency does not do enough to preserve burial sites. As it stands, the responsibility for protecting cemeteries rests largely with the people of Appalachia, not with the state-appointed guardians of their culture and heritage.

Speak Now, or You’ll Never Rest in Peace

To be eligible for protection under federal law, a cemetery must be included in the National Register of Historic Places. Prospective registrants must complete a lengthy, multistep application and submit a detailed land survey to establish historical or archaeological significance, and Bonds believes hundreds of cemeteries were already lost by the time residents realized what the registration process entailed. The process of fighting offending coal companies is even more complicated: citizens must not only prove that a cemetery existed, they must provide evidence that the company was aware of that cemetery when it applied for its permit.

They’re not gonna take it anymore.

Photo: Jesse Mwaura / ohvec.org

The goal for local activist groups, then, is to raise awareness among residents in areas of heavy mining activity and teach them to watch for notices of land sales or permit applications in the local papers. Additionally, they push people in the community to register any known cemeteries or burial grounds as quickly as possible to qualify for protection. “King Coal has a long arm in this area, so it’s up to the citizens to find out about a permit and then try to figure out how to protect the area,” Bonds says.

It’s also important, she adds, to let coal companies know that residents won’t tolerate the destruction of their communities any longer. “When I became active in this, nobody even knew about these permits; no one knew what these things in the paper were. Well now we know, and they know that we know. And now we’re saying, ‘Stop it.'”

Though she believes her group’s efforts have been successful, she says it’s “only because we are and have been fighting this so hard here and they know we’re fighting it. I shudder to think what they’re doing in other communities, in Virginia, in Kentucky, over in Mingo County. I’m really afraid to hear their stories.”

Young — an executive committee member of the Ohio Chapter of the Sierra Club and co-chair of its energy committee — also does her part to raise awareness. She leads tours called the “True Cost of Coal” for journalists, activists, politicians, and others, hoping to “enlighten people about how this method of generating electricity impacts the communities near the power plants, near the waste, and near the mining — the whole cycle of coal.” Only then, she says, will there be a desire to change, since those who have not been personally affected by mining are “not being forced to absorb the externalized costs of their homes being flooded or their cemeteries being blasted. That kind of thing doesn’t go on a utility bill.”

This spring, Gibson and Gunnoe took the word even farther afield as members of the first Coalfield Delegation to the U.N.’s annual Commission on Sustainable Development. Gunnoe focused her talks almost entirely on the destruction of cemeteries.

“It is a global problem and it’s up to the people to … do something about it,” she says. “We have sacrificed everything for the land that we love, and now our entire way of life is threatened. I will not let them lock the mountain people out of the mountain.”