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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“This is what people around here don’t understand, that this is forever,” says Terry Steele, a former coal miner who has brought us up to a reclaimed mountaintop removal mine (MTR) site just above his home in Meador Hollow, West Virginia. “This mountain will never be like it was.” The site has been reclaimed close to its original contour. That is, it’s about the height it used to be, but now it’s topped with pale rocky soil and anemic vegetation.

Scene from alongside the hollow road heading to an MTR site near Meador, W.Va. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

More scenes from alongside the hollow road. (photos: Katherine Chandler)

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Terry goes on to tell us how he used to “‘seng” — harvest West Virginia’s coveted wild ginseng — all up and down the mountain for pocket money as a boy. “You wouldn’t believe how beautiful this was,” he says, “it used to be all hickory, beech and oak.” Now the mountaintop is made up largely of grasses, with some sparse locus, pine and the invasive autumn olive.

Terry and his wife Wilma Lee Steele are open critics of MTR, a rarity in Southwest West Virginia, the heart of coal country. In Mingo County, where they live, you can’t drive five minutes without passing a coal truck barreling down the highway, seeing a “Friends of Coal” billboard, or passing a coal-loading facility. And although you won’t notice them from the ground, MTR sites are all around you.

The Steeles both come from long lines of coal miners, and Terry himself spent 26 years deep mining before he became disabled. Coal is so plentiful here that old-timers would just cut into the mountain to dig it for themselves; walk straight back from the Steele home and you’ll find the entrance to one of these “house coal” mines.

Wilma and Terry Steele are some of the few coal country residents willing to speak out about MTR sites in their hollows. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

Over the decades, large land companies like Norfolk Southern railroad subsidiary Pocahontas Land Corporation bought most of the mountains, leasing them for mining and timbering. But it’s the hollow dwellers who have lived there for generations. Like many, the Steeles treat the mountains like their backyard — every evening they four-wheel to the summit to watch the sunset.

Terry and Wilma were opponents of strip mining on ecological grounds even when Terry was working in the union mines and jobs were scarce. Now that MTR has come into their backyard, they feel its impact firsthand.

What the Steeles can’t get over is how little the coal companies and land companies seem to care about the hollow dwellers. Erosion from the MTR site has caused streams to regularly flood after a rain, in one case bad enough to pull the asphalt off the hollow road. Runoff from valley fill and the mine site has fouled wells in the area. Blasting has cracked the foundations of houses. But few people are willing to speak out.

“Everyone either works for a coal mine, or their brother works for a coal mine,” says Wilma, an art teacher in a local school. “A lot of people believe that simply by speaking out, they are taking others people’s jobs.”

“What people need to realize,” says Terry angrily, “is that we have had coal mining here for a hundred years and what has it gotten us? We are still one of the poorest counties in the country.”

Both Wilma and Terry point out how difficult it is to change long-held acceptance of mining practices among coalfield residents, especially when the coal company fights a constant propaganda war.

Wilma, Dustin and Terry Steele, left to right. (photo: Katherine Chandler)

Dustin, Terry and Wilma’s son, refused to attend his class Earth Day field trip last year during his freshman year in high school. “They said, ‘We are going to take you to a mountaintop removal spot for Earth Day.’ They had, like, T-shirts, a chartered bus, free food,” he explains. “You get to see all these gigantic trucks, ’cause they are amazing to look at.”

Dusting didn’t buy any of it. “It’s like taking a field trip to a KKK rally on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day,” he told his teacher.

Tomorrow we post about the Branhams, another mining family attempting to fight off a proposed MTR site that would put valley fill at the top of their hollow.