This week, Gabriel Pacyniak and Katherine Chandler are traveling throughout southern West Virginia to report on mountaintop removal mining (MTR). They’ll be visiting coalfields with abandoned and "reclaimed" MTR mines, and talking with residents, activists, miners, mine company officials, local reporters, and politicians.

We’ll publish their reports throughout the week.


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Driving to the north end of Mingo County, W.Va., we get lost and arrive late, which is pretty much par for the course. (Sample directions: … after you get out of that little town make a right after the bridge, go about a mile and half, make a right after the scenic bridge … ) Fortunately, Donna and Charlie Branham don’t seem to mind, and neither do we. The six-mile drive up the hollow is a pleasure: we’re listening to “Coal Country Radio” (“The best country music countdown on Earth”) as we wind our way past everything from single-wide trailers with chicken coops to custom-built stone homes.

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Entrance to Donna and Charlie Branham’s homestead. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

Like the other critics of mountaintop removal mining (MTR) we meet in coal country, Donna and Charlie are directly threatened by MTR. In their case, the mining hasn’t started yet, although it could begin any day. Laurel Creek Company has won a permit to open a deep mine on the mountain behind their 113-acre property, and Donna believes that this permit will be followed by an application for an MTR permit after the deep mine finishes, in about two and a half years.

The Laurel Creek Company plans to place a valley fill up the mountain behind the Branham’s barn, burying the creek. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

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“When we built this house up here, we thought we were safe from coal mines,” says Donna, “but then I started to see the permits.” Her own parents were forced out of their home at the end of their lives after MTR blasting cracked the foundation of their home and runoff fouled their drinking water.

To show us how their property would be affected, Donna takes us for walk up the creek that runs down the mountain where the mining will take place. Above us, light filters through the tall hardwoods, and we follow the speckled shadows on the ground. Ferns and moss grow along the bank, while the water trickles over smooth rocks, carved out from the years of water flow.

Donna and Charlie Branham are contesting the mining company’s findings that their creek is already contaminated. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

Light filters through the tall hardwoods walking up the Branham’s hollow. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

You can sense the Branhams’ connection to this place. The creek, which runs past the barnyard full of chickens and ducks, feeds their gardens, trout ponds, and animals. But its value extends beyond that; this is a place they share with their family, including their four children and ten grandchildren. We can see their traces all up and down the creek. Amused, Donna points out where her grandson Charlie has built a deer-attractor of sorts, a model wooden fort covered with moss and touched with deer scent. Unfortunately, all this could easily be destroyed. If the MTR application goes through, a valley fill will be installed right up to her property line, burying the stream.

Signs of the Branham grandchildren are everywhere along the creek, including this rock collection. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

Charlie, another 20-year veteran of the deep mines, and Donna have decided to actively fight for their land. With the help of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, they protested the mining permits that Laurel Creek was applying for. They also tried to involve their neighbors in their struggle. In their hollow, many people supported them initially, but when they looked for petition signatures or support at the permit hearing, few were willing to follow through.

“A lot of people who said that they wanted to go to the hearing came up with excuses … A couple of people said that they heard I was involved with outside groups that just wanted to shut the whole coal mining system down. Then there were some people who felt that they would lose their medical cards and their miners pension. And then there were moms who had sons who worked for Laurel Creek mining company, and they sort of backed down at the last minute.” In fact, Donna says that the action has cost her friends in the hollow, because some people are uncomfortable speaking with her.

Charlie and Donna Branham discussing their struggle in front of the porch. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

In the end, the Branhams lost their protest. Although mine regulations prohibit mining within a 100 feet of a stream or an abandoned mine, which was the case with this permit, Laurel Creek won five variances.

In the case of the stream, the coal company argued that it was already contaminated and not a permanent stream — only seasonal. According to Donna, she recently had Ben Stout, a professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University who does water quality research, perform an independent survey. He concluded that the stream is not only year-round, but also found that the stream has “some of the best water he’s tested,” she says.

Like other families we met with who are fighting against MTR, Donna found that everything seems stacked against her. The West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection “seems like its mostly for the mine companies,” she says. The local paper wouldn’t run a letter to the editor she wrote about the permitting process. And she couldn’t get a single politician to support her case.

“If I could have my legislator or my senator or even my county commissioner say, ‘Hey, let’s protect these people’s rights, let’s make sure these coal companies mine responsible,’ that would make a difference.”

Tomorrow we’ll post a bird’s eye view of the legislative and legal fight against MTR.