Category Archives: Coal Mining

It was the world’s largest company coal town. As it turns 100, it fights to stay alive.


Lynch resident Mike O’Bradovich talks about the 100th birthday of the historic Harlan County coal town. Bill Estep

By Bill Estep


The valley along Looney Creek in Harlan County was a wooded wilderness in 1917 when U.S. Steel, hungry for coal to make steel during World War I, bought 19,000 acres and set about creating the largest company-owned coal town in the world.

The company built an entire town from scratch — hundreds of houses, stores, schools, a hotel, a hospital, a baseball field, a fire station, water and power plants and industrial buildings, including a machine shop and the highest-capacity coal tipple anywhere.

Despite the buzz of work and grand intentions, some thought the town would be a flash in the pan.

The L&N Railroad refused to extend tracks to Lynch from Benham, a coal town about a mile away, because officials felt the town would die after the war when demand for steel went down, according to one history by a U.S. Steel official.

The company built its own tracks, and Lynch survived. The town at the foot of Kentucky’s highest peak, Black Mountain, turns 100 this year.

In that century, Lynch has mirrored the history of Eastern Kentucky as coal jobs swung up and down and families moved out to find work during hard times.

More than half the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have disappeared since a precipitous slide started in 2012. At the end of 2016, there were fewer miners on the job in all of Eastern Kentucky than there were at the U.S. Steel mines at Lynch at their peak.

The town’s population has declined to less than 800 from a peak of 10,000, and a third of the houses are vacant, according to U.S. Census figures.

Now, like the rest of the region, Lynch is looking for a new way forward. Residents are trying to promote tourism and small businesses to create jobs, and a study about the possibility of merging with two nearby towns is underway.

The challenges from an anemic economy and a declining tax base are steep, but many in Lynch have a fierce pride in the historic town and are determined to breathe new life into it.

A committee of volunteers is working to schedule events each month to mark the anniversary. On Jan. 1, local churches rang their bells for 100 seconds, and in February, residents put up red ribbons around town. The big event will be in September, with plans for a car show, vendors, family games and performances by several bands.

Residents also have set up a Facebook page where they are posting historic photos and trivia about the town’s past.

The hope is that the centennial will be a springboard for efforts to keep Lynch from withering away.

“The city was built by coal but it can be maintained by something else,” said Rev. Ronnie Hampton, a retired mine inspector who was the town’s first black mayor. “As long as we’ve got breath, we won’t give up.”

Coal companies built hundreds of towns in Southern Appalachia in the early 1900s. Many were thrown together with cookie-cutter houses, poor sanitation and few amenities.

A photo from July 1919 shows construction of mining and other facilities at Lynch, in Harlan County. The historic coal town turns 100 this year. Photo provided

Lynch, however, was considered a model town, with better-built houses of varying styles; health care better than that available to most people in the region; recreation opportunities that included lighted tennis courts, the baseball field, a bowling alley and dances at the hotel ballroom; paved streets; a sewage system; and a company commissary that was reputed to be the best department store in Eastern Kentucky, according to historians.

Italian immigrants used sandstone quarried from the nearby hills to build impressive public buildings.

“None of them rivaled Lynch,” James B. Goode, a retired community college professor who grew up in the neighboring coal town of Benham and has studied the history of Lynch, said of other coal towns.

The thought was that keeping miners content would enhance production and keep down problems.

‘A lot of fun here’

Lynch resident Irene Florek, who is 100, arrived in town with her family when she was a few months old. Her father had moved from a U.S. Steel coal town in West Virginia to work at the new Lynch mines.

Florek lived near the baseball field and remembers frequent activities including games and parades. One local history recounts that the company would close off the street to the hotel when it snowed so kids could go sledding.

“It was a lot of fun here at that time,” Florek said.

The company history recounts milestones from Lynch’s first 40 years, including a meningitis epidemic that hit the area in early 1936. U.S. Steel banned church services and public gatherings to try to limit the spread, and set up a temporary hospital.

Six of the 100 Lynch residents who got sick died, but the death rate was 80 percent or more in nearby communities, according to the company history, which attributed the relatively few deaths in town to the good medical care from company doctors.

In the Depression, people relied on gardens to help get by and the Red Cross gave out flour and other commodities, the history said.

Two miners ride a machine out of one of U.S. Steel’s mines at Lynch in the 1920s. Photo provided

Lynch was a classic melting pot of white people from the region, black people from the South and immigrants of more than 30 nationalities. In 1921, nearly 60 percent of the outgoing mail was to Europe, according to one history.

U.S. Steel recruited black workers from Alabama and other Southern states who were looking for better work than sharecropping, including some recruited from older mines in the Birmingham area.

The company also had recruiters at Ellis Island who used ship manifests to identify European immigrants with mining experience that they could hire, Goode said.

The first load of coal left Lynch in November 1917. By June of 1920, the Lynch mines employed 2,300 men and the population of the town had already reached 5,350, according to a company history.

“It was hustle and bustle here,” said Mike O’Bradovich, a first-generation American whose father came to Lynch from what became Yugoslavia and whose mother was from Germany.

O’Bradovich followed his father into the mines, working from 1974 to 2002.

The sense of pride many in Lynch felt was rooted in immigrants making their way in a new country, O’Bradovich said.

“The pride started when these people were coming over, becoming Americans,” he said.

Generations of black residents have maintained ties to Lynch through the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, which has chapters around the country and sponsors a Labor Day reunion each year, and through a homecoming to Lynch each Memorial Day.

When a former city clerk was charged in 2009 with stealing $137,000 from the city, leaving it strapped, the city council appointed Hampton to steer the city through the crisis.

Hampton sent letters to Eastern Kentucky Social Club members and former residents seeking help, which brought in thousands in donations.

Lynch was segregated until the 1960s. Black and white employees worked together in the mines, but black miners could not move up to supervisory positions until winning a lawsuit in the 1970s, and schools and entertainment were segregated.

There was racial violence directed at black residents in the Appalachian coalfields, especially in the early days, but there was a relatively high degree of harmony between the races at a personal level, historian Ron Eller wrote in his 1982 book “Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the American South 1880-1930.”

Whites and blacks in the mines had to rely on each other for their safety, and there were not major differences in pay or living conditions for miners of different races, Eller said.

When the schools integrated in the mid-1960s, U.S. Steel “made it seamless,” said Dwain Morrow, whose father, William Morrow, retired after working 40 years for the company.

‘Virtual reign of terror’

Labor relations were another matter.

Harlan County had some of the most widely reported labor clashes in the country between the world wars. Coal operators used control over the county’s economy and politicians to beat back organizing efforts, evicting union members from company houses, blacklisting them from getting jobs and paying the salaries of sheriff’s deputies who intimidated miners.

Lynch was not immune from the violence associated with those struggles that cemented the nickname “Bloody Harlan.”

There were shootings in Lynch, including one fight at the bathhouse in which two men died, Goode said.

“They didn’t hesitate to resort to violence,” he said of the union organizers and the coal companies.

U.S. Steel and other coal companies exerted authoritarian control over employees and the economic, political and social life in the county, John W. Hevener said in his 1978 account of the labor battles of the 1930s, “Which Side Are You On?”

When the United Mine Workers of America tried in 1935 to sign up members at U.S. Coal and Coke, the U.S. Steel division that operated Lynch, the company laid in a supply of tear gas and extra ammunition, barred organizers and followed union members and destroyed their literature, Hevener wrote.

A state commission later said that a “virtual reign of terror” existed in the county, financed by coal operators in collusion with public officials, and that miners had been evicted, beaten and mistreated.

Goode said U.S. Steel eventually accepted the UMW at Lynch in the late 1930s, deciding that the cost wouldn’t be onerous.

Pay and benefits for miners improved under the union, said William Morrow, 94, who lied about his age to go to work for U.S. Steel at 16.

“It made it better,” Morrow said.

By the late 1950s, mechanization had eliminated many miners’ jobs and railroads and factories switched to other fuel sources, reducing demand for coal.

Coal production hit a 50-year-low in Harlan County in 1960, and the county’s population dropped by nearly half between 1950 and 1970 as people left to find work, according to Census figures.

U.S. Steel and other companies, including International Harvester at neighboring Benham, decided it was too costly to maintain company-owned towns. They tore down many houses, sold others to residents, turned over schools to county districts and gave offices and other buildings to the towns, keeping only their mining operations.

U.S. Steel eventually ended its involvement in Lynch after more than six decades, selling its mines to Arch Coal in 1984.

These days, the city is living month to month financially and operates in the red at times, said Mayor John Adams.

“Getting by — that would be optimistic,” Adams said.

Arch stopped mining around town in the late 1980s, cutting a key source of revenue for the city from selling water to the mines.

Adams said the city needs more employees but can’t afford to hire. When both of its water-plant operators quit in January, the mayor pressed his sons into service to keep the plant going.

Untapped potential

But residents say Lynch also has assets to develop its tourism economy, including the beauty of the mountains, a fascinating history and its coal-camp houses and buildings.

Some of the original buildings in town are still in use, such as the hospital and a building that was a bank and post office, which now holds City Hall.

Kitty Dougoud, administrator of the Kentucky Main Street Program at the Kentucky Heritage Council, said she was not aware of a more intact coal town.

“The potential is there,” Dougoud said.

Neighboring Benham is home to the Kentucky Coal Museum in the renovated coal-company commissary and other historic buildings, including the School House Inn, which was a high school for decades beginning in the 1920s but was converted to a hotel.

Cumberland, Benham and Lynch have been designated as trail towns. They are working to develop hiking and horse trails, and Lynch has started work on a campground.

The city received a grant to renovate the old coal-camp fire station, which now houses Fire House Gifts and Crafts, and a Christian service organization called Meridzo Center Ministries financed the renovation of a building that housed a popular restaurant in the 1920s across from the portal of a mine in the center of town. The Lamp House Coffee shop is in the building now.

There has been interest for years in restoring more of the town’s old stone buildings, but not enough money to match the interest.

The town did receive financing to create a unique attraction at the Portal 31 exhibition mine. Visitors tour a restored section of an underground mine where workers produced more than 100 million tons of coal from 1917 to the early 1960s.

Recordings and animatronic displays tell the story of mining and the town over decades, covering technology, safety concerns, union organizing, and the rise and fall of Lynch.

‘Here to help people’

Residents say Meridzo also is a key resource for the town.

In addition to renovating the building for the coffee shop, the ministry operates a convenience store, a gym, a veterinary clinic, retreat centers and a stable in Harlan and Letcher counties.

Meridzo sees its mission as helping people with practical needs, including jobs, and in the process share the Gospel of Christ, said Lonnie Riley, who founded the ministry with his wife, Belinda, in 1999.

“We’re here to help people,” Riley said.

Meridzo is working to recruit a chiropractor, and has started a facility to grow shiitake mushrooms in sections of hardwood logs in the old bathhouse where miners cleaned up before going home.

There also is an effort underway to develop a customer-service center to provide jobs locally.

Betsy Shirey, who is developing the project, said her idea is a center where employees would field telephone calls and emails for other companies, and could provide other services, such as bookkeeping and marketing.

Shirey works for Humana, but after visiting Lynch on mission trips coordinated by Meridzo, she felt a spiritual calling to try to bring jobs to the area.

She can do her job from home, so she bought a house in Lynch and moved from Louisville.

Shirey said the lack of jobs in the area has helped create an attitude of entrenched hopelessness for many people.

“We’ve got to build up some infrastructure of meaningful work for people,” Shirey said.

Merger ahead?

Some think merging services for Lynch, Benham and Cumberland — or even merging local governments — would put all three on better footing.

The three lie end to end over a space of a few miles and have been known as the Tri-Cities for decades, but grew up as distinct places, with their own schools and competing sports teams, and have always maintained separate city services.

With all three stretched thin, however, their councils agreed to a merger study proposed by the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce, which said in its application for a grant that with declining populations and tax bases, the three towns “have struggled mightily in their efforts to maintain basic services to their citizens.”

The study will focus on how the towns could form one government, how services could be combined, potential savings and how layoffs would be handled if needed.

I really fear for their existence unless they are willing to come together and work as one.

W. Bruce Ayers, former president of Southeast Community and Technical College

W. Bruce Ayers, former president of Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland and head of the chamber, said many members believe merger is needed.

A merger would reduce costs, increase efficiency and give the unified city a better shot at government grants, Ayers said.

“I really fear for their existence unless they are willing to come together and work as one,” Ayers said.

It will probably be next year before the study is done and the towns have to decide on merging.

Even if they do, Lynch won’t lose its identity in its second century, said Mary Jo O’Bradovich, who with her husband Mike is involved in the centennial committee.

“After 100 years, I don’t think anyone is going to say, I am from the Tri-Cities,’” she said. “Lynch will be Lynch.”

Bill Estep: 606-678-4655, @billestep1

Coal Miners continue to suffer on this, the last day of 2016….for some, nothing changes, it only gets worse.



Image result for kentucky coal mines


Below is two stories which caught my eye this morning concerning coal mining and coal miners.  It is the last day of 2016 and still, they suffer.  Between job loss and illness and an ultimate death from Black Lung, these people who have worked their entire lives to dig coal so that we have electricity for all of our needs, have suffered their entire lives as slaves to the Corporate system, who entrenched them in this line of work.  Appalachia and surrounding area is home to some of the most poor people in America.  They were born into mining.  Entire families work in the mines.  They were never taught to do anything else.  And if they all quit today, what would we do for electricity to power all of the gadgets and contraptions that we rely on today, such as the laptop and light I am using now to write this?

Please see the stories below and remember to say a prayer for our Miners and their families today.



President Nixon Signs Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act: December 30, 1969


On December 30, 1969, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.  Since the Monograph mine disaster in Marion County more than 60 years earlier, Congress had been passing laws to address coal mine safety. However, most were filled with loopholes or lacked funding for enforcement.

The tide turned after another Marion County disaster. The 1968 Farmington explosion killed 78 miners. Americans watched in horror as the drama unfolded on national TV. 

After the disaster, Congressman Ken Hechler paid to bring hundreds of miners and the widows of the Farmington miners to protest at the nation’s capitol. Black lung doctors rallied miners in the coalfields and testified before Congress about unsafe mining conditions. And in the spring of 1969, 40,000 miners defied their union and went on strike to support the legislation.

The resulting law increased mine inspections; allowed the government to shut down unsafe mines; placed stricter limits on coal dust; improved ventilation, roof supports, and methane detection; and provided compensation to miners suffering from black lung. The landmark legislation ultimately led to a significant decrease in deaths from coal mining.



Advanced Black Lung Cases Surge In Appalachia


Across Appalachia, coal miners are suffering from the most serious form of the deadly mining disease black lung in numbers more than 10 times what federal regulators report, an NPR investigation has found.

The government, through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, reported 99 cases of “complicated” black lung, or progressive massive fibrosis, throughout the country the last five years.

But NPR obtained data from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported a total of 962 cases so far this decade. The true number is probably even higher, because some clinics had incomplete records and others declined to provide data.

“The actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear,” says the report, which appears in this week’s issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I can’t say that I’ve heard really anything worse than this in my career,” says Robert Cohen, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago who studies and tracks black lung.

“I can’t think of anything in this particular field … that’s more frightening than this,” Cohen adds.

Edward “Lee” Petsonk of West Virginia University has spent three decades addressing the disease and finds NPR’s numbers “very disheartening, very disappointing.”

“I’ve spent much of my career trying to find ways to better protect miners’ respiratory health,” Petsonk says. “It’s almost like I’ve failed.”

NIOSH released a report Thursday, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which focuses on a small health clinic in Kentucky with 60 cases alone of PMF in 20 months. The report acknowledges cases are being missed by the government’s count; it concludes: “The actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear.”

“The more I talk, the more I get out of breath”

Mackie Branham, 39, of Elkhorn Creek, Ky., spent 19 years mining coal until he was diagnosed with complicated black lung. He ran monstrous mining machines and drilled bolts into mine roofs — occupations NIOSH says can involve excessive mine dust exposure. He worked double shifts and seven-day weeks every chance he had.

His gallbladder was removed one day and he says he was back at work the next. He took two days, he says, after knee surgery, before working a 12-hour shift drilling bolts. But severe breathing problems forced him to leave work in March. And he struggles for every breath now.

“My dad has got it. Everybody that has got it, got it when they had like first stage or so. I’ll probably be the first born to be this bad in the family,” Branham says, describing a family legacy of black lung.

“They can’t breathe but they can still get up and walk around and do stuff. The more I talk, the more I get out of breath. It’s like I ain’t got no capacity.”


Branham was diagnosed with PMF at United Medical Group, a clinic in Coal Run Village, Ky., that was the subject of the NIOSH study. Radiologist Brandon Crum was alarmed by the numbers of miners coming in with such severe disease, including some like Branham, who were in their 30s and 40s and worked less than 20 years underground. So he contacted NIOSH researchers.

“I think the percentage of black lung that we’re seeing now here in central Appalachia is unprecedented in any recorded data that I can find anywhere,” Crum says. “In this clinic we’re roughly around 9 to 10 percent complicated rate, which is around three times higher than even the highest reported numbers.”

NIOSH researchers gathered at the clinic and verified the diagnoses. They, too, were alarmed.


Black Lung Returns To Coal Country

“The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard,” says NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney, who has focused on black lung as well as the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa.

“We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.”

Crum tells NPR he diagnosed 10 more cases of PMF since Laney and his colleagues left the clinic.

In three years, 644 cases

Life with PMF is bleak. It’s incurable and fatal.

Fifty-three-year-old Charles Wayne Stanley of Pound, Va., is matter-of-fact about his future.

“Staying on oxygen 24/7, dying of suffocation, that’s what I’ve got to look forward to,” Stanley says, as he sits in a clinic in St. Charles, Va.

“I’ve seen it too many times. My wife’s grandpa … [I] watched him take his last breath. I watched my uncle die with black lung. You literally suffocate because you can’t get enough air. That’s my prospects.”

Stanley says his diagnosis includes black lung and silicosis.

In just the last three years, 644 cases of complicated black lung were diagnosed at Stone Mountain Health Services, which operates black lung clinics in St. Charles and two other Virginia communities. That’s six times the NIOSH national count in nearly half the time.

Ron Carson is the director of the Black Lung Program at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Va. “Something major is going on,” he says.

“I’m not an epidemiologist or a scientist or a doctor,” says Ron Carson, who manages the clinics. “I just see the results that come through the doors, and something is going on. Something major is going on.”

Laney and his colleagues acknowledge in their paper that they have missed hundreds of cases with their national surveillance program. By law, they can X-ray only working miners and the testing is voluntary. NIOSH data show most miners avoid that testing. Only 17 percent of all working Kentucky miners were tested in the NIOSH program since 2011.

Stanley waited until he was out of work, after 30 years mining coal, before he got his first chest X-ray. Miners avoid the NIOSH testing, he says, because they worry it could cost them their jobs.

“If you’re working and you go and have that stuff done and the company finds out about it, they’ll find a way to get rid of you,” Stanley says. “As long as you’re working and producing you’re an asset. But now when you get something wrong with you, you become a liability. And they’ll find a way to get rid of you.”

The last company a miner worked for (for at least a year) is saddled with black lung benefits payments and medical care — even if the miner spent 20 years working somewhere else in excessive dust. It’s the last employer who pays.

But it’s against the law to punish or fire miners for getting X-rays or being diagnosed with disease. Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association also says mining companies are not supposed to see the X-rays.

“Those results are not shared with any employer. It’s at the miner’s discretion the way the program operates today when and if to divulge that information,” Watzman says.

Still, the fear is widespread. So missing from the official NIOSH counts in the last 40 years are the working miners avoiding X-rays, and miners who are retired or laid off.

More than 40,000 miners lost their jobs since 2010. Six hundred mines have closed. And those out of work are now flocking to clinics to get screened for the disease and apply for black lung benefits. Last year alone, 3,000 miners showed up at the Stone Mountain clinics.

“I’m seeing miners now feeling that there’s no hope. I think that they have really come to the realization that there’s other energy out there now that is going to override any coal,” Carson says.

With the increased testing, more cases of complicated black lung are being diagnosed.

“Pure rock dust”

Cohen, Laney and other black lung experts believe thinner coal seams in central Appalachia are likely to blame for spikes in complicated black lung. The thickest seams are mostly gone. The thin seams that remain have coal embedded in rock, and that rock contains quartz. Cutting quartz and coal together results in mine dust that includes silica, which is especially toxic in lung tissue. Stanley worked in so much dust he labeled his mining machine the dust dragon.

“They kept getting less coal and more rock. So you’re cutting 19 inches of coal, you’re cutting 50-60 inches of rock,” Stanley recalls. “And the more rock you cut the more dust you’re going to eat.”


The Forest Service invites public review and comment on potential environmental remediation at the Rock Creek abandoned coal mine sites.(Rock Creek abandoned coal mine sites remediation)


Rock Creek

Rock Creek

Rock Creek is a beautiful stream, with magnificent boulders, riffles, glides, and pools. Flowing through southeastern Kentucky on Stearns Ranger District, it is both a Blue Ribbon trout fishery and a Kentucky Wild River. However, highly acidic water flowing from abandoned mine lands left the stream virtually dead from White Oak Junction to the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The acid mine drainage had killed most of the vegetation and aquatic life in the stream.

The Rock Creek Task Force was formed with the cooperation of ten state and federal agencies and Trout Unlimited to tend to the needs of the Rock Creek watershed. Restoration work began in 2000 to improve water quality, sustain aquatic life, and bring back the beauty of the steam.

Innovative wetlands were constructed to treat the mine flow heading into the stream. Limestone sand was placed in Rock Creek to neutralize the acidic water coming from the mines. Tons of coal refuse material was removed, treated, and relocated to designated storage locations. Limestone rock was placed along the channels as they enter Rock Creek to boost alkalinity.

Monitoring of Lower Rock Creek has shown an improvement in water quality and aquatic life. The charts below show how acidity has been reduced and alkalinity increased at several sites.

Fish surveys at lower Rock Creek have yielded multiple species in good and improving numbers. A July 2001 fish survey collected a brown trout and a blackside dace, each found in different parts of the Rock Creek watershed. The most optimistic sign of all is the presence of anglers who have returned to fish the lower portion of Rock Creek.

Water Tank Hollow, a three-acre site located on the north bank of Lower Rock Creek, was once used for dumping mining refuse. Secondary acid forming minerals were observed in the refuse as shown in the chart below. About 20,000-30,000 tons of coal refuse material was removed, treated and deposited in a safe location.

Water Tank Hollow, Rock Creek



The Forest Service invites public review and comment on potential environmental remediation at the Rock Creek abandoned coal mine sites.

The Rock Creek Mine Sites are located in the Daniel Boone National Forest, Stearns Ranger District, McCreary County, approximately five miles west of Stearns, Kentucky.

The U.S. Forest Service is examining this site to:

  1. evaluate the environmental impacts;
  2. assess public health risks; and
  3. minimize the impacts associated with historic coal mining activities in this area.

Additional information about this project

Project Fact Sheet (pdf)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service invites public review and comment on potential environmental remediation at the Rock Creek abandoned coal mine sites in McCreary County, Ky. This action is in accordance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.

An Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis (EE/CA) summarizes possible alternatives to reduce or remove acid mine drainage impacts at the abandoned coal mine locations. This draft document and other project-related reports will be available soon for review at the Daniel Boone National Forest Supervisor’s Office, Stearns District office, and online at Office addresses can also be found on that web page.

Public comments on the draft EE/CA will be accepted in the near future for a period of thirty (30) days. Tentative plans are to make this draft EE/CA available for public review and comments sometime in November, 2016. Comments and responses will be summarized and included in open records. Written comments may be sent to the Daniel Boone National Forest Supervisor’s Office or emailed to: with CERCLA as the subject line.

the last union mine in Kentucky has been shut down

By Dylan Lovan
The Associated Press

Posted Sep. 5, 2015 at 1:03 PM
Updated Sep 5, 2015 at 1:04 PM


In this 1939 photo, their day's work done, miners who reported for duty for the Harlan Central Coal Company near Harlan, Ky., leave the mine under the guard of troops who escorted them through a picket line.

HARLAN, Ky. — Kentucky coal miners bled and died to unionize. Their workplaces became war zones, and gun battles once punctuated union protests. In past decades, organizers have been beaten, stabbed and shot while seeking better pay and safer conditions deep underground.

But more recently the United Mine Workers in Kentucky have been in retreat, dwindling like the black seams of coal in the Appalachian mountains.

And now the last union mine in Kentucky has been shut down.

"A lot of people right now who don’t know what the (union) stands for is getting good wages and benefits because of the sacrifice that we made," said Kenny Johnson, a retired union miner who was arrested during the Brookside strike in Harlan County in the 1970s. "Because when we went on those long strikes, it wasn’t because we wanted to be out of work."

Hard-fought gains are taken for granted by younger workers who earn high wages now, leading the coal industry to argue that the union ultimately rendered itself obsolete. But union leaders and retirees counter that anti-union operators, tightening environmental regulations and a turbulent coal market hastened the union’s demise in Kentucky.

The union era’s death knell sounded in Kentucky on New Year’s Eve, when Patriot Coal announced the closing of its Highland Mine. The underground mine in western Kentucky employed about 400 hourly workers represented by the United Mine Workers of America.

For the first time in about a century, in the state that was home to the gun battles of "Bloody Harlan," not a single working miner belongs to a union. That has left a bad taste in the mouths of retirees: men like Charles Dixon, who heard the sputter of machine gun fire and bullets piercing his trailer in Pike County during a long strike with the A.T. Massey Coal Company in 1984 and 1985.

"I had my house shot up during that strike," said Dixon, the United Mine Workers local president at the time. "I was just laying in bed and next thing you know you hear a big AR-15 unloading on it. Coal miners had it tough buddy, they sure have."

The shots fired at Dixon’s home recall the even deadlier organizing battles of the 1920s and ’30s, many in Harlan County.

One ambush shooting in 1937 ended with the death of union organizer Marshall Musick’s 14-year-old son, Bennett, when "a shower of bullets tore through the walls of the house," according to union leader George Titler’s book, "Hell in Harlan."

Organizing battles raged in Appalachia throughout the last century, most notably the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, where thousands of striking miners fought a shooting war with law enforcement and replacement workers, ending in dozens of deaths. One year earlier, 10 people had died in Matewan, West Virginia, in a skirmish over eviction notices served to miners who had joined the union.

In Harlan County, Kentucky, the 1931 Battle of Evarts ended in four deaths. More recently, the strife of the mid-1970s Brookside mining strike here was captured in the Academy Award-winning documentary, "Harlan County U.S.A."

Johnson, who appeared in the film when he was 22 years old, returned this summer to the scene of his first picket line arrest along state Highway 38 in Harlan County.

He had stood there, near the Highsplint mine entrance, with other union members and gasped as state troopers set up a machine gun across the street. After about four hours of noisy picketing, a tall trooper stuck a baton between Johnson’s legs and raised it up to his groin.

"We just came to lend them a hand that day, and ended up going to jail," said Johnson, now 63 and battling health issues.

Johnson, Dixon and union leaders worry that the union’s disappearance in Kentucky has opened the door for coal operators to lower worker standards.

"When the coal industry rebounds to the extent that it does, and non-union operators take a look around and see that there’s no union competition, and they’ll see that they can begin to cut wages, they can begin to cut benefits, they can begin to cut corners on safety, they’ll do that," said Phil Smith, a national spokesman for the miner’s union.

Smith pointed to operations run by former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship, who closed union mines in the 1980s and now faces criminal conspiracy charges in the 2010 deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.

But industry leaders argue that higher wages and safer mines in recent decades have reduced the desire for workers at non-union mines to organize.

"Anymore, I just don’t think there’s that level of discontent between the company and working coal miners, which I think is a very good thing," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, an industry group. "If anything, they’ve won, which I think they’ve worked themselves out of a job, in that respect."

Bissett said mines have become safer despite the union’s diminished presence in Kentucky.

"We’re in some of the safest time in the history of U.S. mining right now and a time when the UMWA is at their lowest level," he said.

More vigorous federal enforcement and the closing of older Appalachian mines in a turbulent coal market have also contributed to declining injuries and deaths.

Union membership remains substantial in West Virginia, with more than 30,000 members, largely because that state wasn’t affected by the environmental regulations on high-sulfur coal that essentially halted mining in western Kentucky in the 1990s. Smith said those western Kentucky mine shutdowns led to the loss of about 20,000 union members in two years.

Patriot Coal cited the slumping market when it told workers the Highland Mine had to close.

"You could’ve heard a pin drop," said mine worker Scottie Sizemore.

A safety officer at Highland for just a few months, Sizemore had left another coal job and his family behind in Harlan County, 300 miles away.

Union miners at the Highland mine were making about $24 an hour and working four 10-hour shifts a week. Workers at non-union mines typically work long shifts six days a week, and benefits vary from mine to mine. Sizemore, who was not in the union at Patriot, has since moved back to Harlan County to work for a smaller mining company. He took a hefty pay cut.

Wages were less of a priority than safety during the Brookside strike of the 1970s. Organizers were pushing the mine’s owner, Eastover Coal Company, to sign a contract establishing a United Mine Workers local there.

Returning to the scene of his arrest four decades ago, Kenny Johnson looked past a small bridge that leads to a mining operation. Coal is still being mined there today, just not by union miners.

Johnson recalled the hard lessons he took from that clash.

"I realized that day that it was very serious and that people would fight you, even to the point of having you put in jail for standing up for some of the ideals that coal miners hold dear," he said.

As he spoke, a young, burly miner drove across the bridge, smudges of coal dust on his face. He angled his truck across, a few feet away from where Johnson was standing.

As he accelerated away, a cloud of dust kicked up behind him.


Officials hope fiber will replace coal in eastern Kentucky

By ADAM BEAM Associated Press



In the 1970s, as the oil crisis spurred an increase in mining, Victor Justice taught people in eastern Kentucky how to mine coal.

Forty years later, his son is teaching them how to write code to build websites.

As the coal industry disappears across Appalachia, politicians and entrepreneurs have been trying to find something to replace it. On Monday, hundreds of people gathered in Hazard to hear one solution: A 3,400-mile network of fiber optic cables that state and private sector officials say will create one of the country’s fastest networks in one of the nation’s worst areas for access to high speed Internet service.

"We’re betting our future on the coming of this dark fiber," Rusty Justice said of his company, Bit Source, which builds websites.

State and federal officials christened the network Monday, the product of about three years of negotiation that spanned political and geographic rivalries in a state that has plenty of each. The network will cost about $324 million to build. Taxpayers will pay about $53.5 million, with the rest coming from private investors. Kentucky will own the network, which will begin in eastern Kentucky but eventually reach into all of the state’s 120 counties. But the Australian-based investment firm Macquarie Group and its partners will build the network and operate it for the next 30 years.

On Monday, a packed auditorium watched as the CEO of a technology company demonstrated how he can build networks that can download video in less "five milliseconds." And in an area that has a shortage of OB-GYNs, people watched a pregnant woman lay down on an exam table while a doctor in Lexington, about 100 miles away, gave her an ultrasound with telemedicine technology.

It’s the kind of benefits officials say the broadband network can bring to eastern Kentucky, which has suffered for years with little cellphone service and limited access to high-speed Internet.

"Broadband is not just about Facebook or HD Netflix," said Jared Arnett, executive director of the Saving Our Appalachian Region, a group charged with transitioning eastern Kentucky’s economy. "This is about economic opportunity."

Construction will begin this year and is scheduled to be finished by the middle of 2016 in eastern Kentucky. Other parts of the states will take longer to build. Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear called it the most important infrastructure project in the state’s history, more so than the Interstate highway system. But they cautioned that the network will only help if people use it. The network is just a means for information to travel. Businesses, school districts, hospitals, local governments and others have to build the products that would make the network worthwhile.

Earlier this month, Beshear created a governing board to oversee the construction of the network. And his state finance cabinet has put together a fiber planning guide for local communities to use as they prepare for how to use the network.

"We know that broadband is not a silver bullet. There is none. But it levels the playing field. It gives us a chance," Rogers said. "It takes away the historic barriers to better jobs: the difficult terrain, the isolation that we’ve endured these generations."

Bit Source is based in Pikeville, the center of what was once the state’s largest coal producing county. It’s the same county where, 40 years ago, Rusty Justice’s father worked for the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program to train people how to operate heavy machinery and other skills needed in the coal industry.

Now Justice said he is seeing those same workers ask him for a job. Justice offered to hire 10 people, preferably out-of-work coal industry workers, and train them how to code. He got 974 applications. The company opened in March and, after 22 weeks of training, has been building websites for companies and local governments.

"We now have a small, embryonic tech sector alive and well in Pikeville," he said.

Read more here:

Coal Miners Sign Class Action Lawsuit Against EPA



Image result for Kentucky coal



Laid off coal miners, and some still employed, are compiling signatures for a class-action lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act. The petition currently has thousands of signatures.

Those coal miners from West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania met on Sunday at the Moundsville Eagles Hall from noon to 6 p.m. to show their support for the lawsuit against the EPA for violations that occurred during the process of enacting legislation.

"This is a provision that can be challenged now. It is an administrative and legislative error. It doesn’t have to do with the final rule and we are not attacking the rule in its entirety. We’ll let the states and the coal companies do that at a later date," said one of the plaintiffs, Kurtis Armann.

Armann said officials found serious problems that occurred during the legislative process, specifically the lack of peer review.

He adds the pending regulations are destroying economies and a way of life for people in West Virginia.

Armann anticipates the class to exceed 2,000 plaintiffs and if Indiana and Illinois get involved, it’ll reach between 4,000 to 5,000 plaintiffs.



Old mining town turns to marijuana after prison, factory close



WALSENBURG, Colo. – A developer’s plan to build hundreds of cannabis greenhouses could make this tiny southern Colorado town one of the nation’s largest producers of legal marijuana.

The town sold 330 acres of municipal land for more than $1 million to create a campus for growing, processing and distribution, with the marijuana to be trucked 160 miles north to consumers in metro Denver. Walsenburg is a former coal mining town that never recovered when the mines closed by the 1960s, and its population has dropped to fewer than 3,000 residents. In Huerfano County, which is home to Walsenburg, 20% of the population lives below poverty level.

Today, the town’s main street is filled with vacant buildings offered at cheap rent. Most people drive through the historic downtown without stopping, often headed west to Great Sand Dunes National Park or Wolf Creek Ski Area. The marijuana project envisions pumping $1 million monthly into the local economy, giving town officials funds for road and infrastructure repairs, and also offering as many as a 1,000 direct and related jobs.

"The only export we really had was smart kids. Now hopefully this will be able to retain those kids in this community," said Walsenburg Mayor James Eccher.

The Martra Development project proposes having about 500 people working on the site, with each greenhouse rented out separately. That will allow smaller growers to get started while giving them room to expand. Martra officials visited 17 counties in Colorado searching for the right combination of land, water and a business-friendly climate.

"There’s people who are saying, ‘hey, embrace this. And then there are CAVE people – citizens against virtually everything. You’re not going to satisfy everybody. What you have to do is try to do is at least not anger the majority," said county administrator John Galusha.

Today, most marijuana grown in Colorado is grown indoors in warehouses stuffed with high-powered lights to mimic the sun. Industry experts say warehouses in urban areas were simply the easiest place for growers to set up shop, especially for those accustomed to hiding their work.

Indoor marijuana cultivation uses so much energy that Boulder County, Colo., enacted a special fee to offset the power demands by growers running lights for 12 hours a day. With marijuana legal in Colorado, a growing number of developers are erecting special-purpose cannabis greenhouses in traditionally agricultural areas to take advantage of abundant natural sunlight and a long growing season.


Power to the pot: Marijuana growers face electric fee

"A cannabis operator, who’s been operating up there (in Denver) with the boot on his neck, just choking to death on his overhead, looks at this model and says ‘when can I have it?" said Brian Trani, Martra’s CEO.

The answer, Trani says, is as soon as October. County officials say the project has been met with some skepticism by locals who say Walsenburg has had its hoped dashed before, including when a nearby privately-run prison and a manufactured-home factory closed.

Count Maria Cocchiarelli-Berger among the skeptics. The curator of the town’s contemporary art museum, she worries Walsenburg is pinning too many hopes on a single project. Still, she admits, the town needs to do something.

"I like to be optimistic, but having lived here for 10 years now, I’ve seen a number of ideas come through that were going to save us. We’ve pinned our hopes on these things … but lots of people just last six months or a year. I do hope it works, but until I see it working, I really am not sure that that’s going to be the key out of the mess we’re in."

A marijuana-growing supply store opened in downtown Walsenburg a few months ago, and co-founder Luara Tank says she’s struggling to keep lights, potting soil and other equipment in stock. On the store counter sits a dish of replacement springs for marijuana-trimming shears, and while the store has been welcomed, some customers still park around back or up the street, she said. Tank moved to Walsenburg to grow, and got tired of making the two-hour round-trip drive to buy supplies.


Patchwork of pot rules hampers marijuana business expansion

"People were guerrilla-growing anyway," Tank said. "It’s pretty perfect here for growing. There’s no jobs here, so you have to make your own job."

Four states have legalized recreational marijuana, along with the District of Columbia, and 23 states and the District have legalized some form of medical marijuana. In many cases, officials levy taxes on the marijuana products to help move the marketplace from the black market to a legitimate business. Colorado reported collecting $10.6 million in legal marijuana taxes and fees in May, twice the amount it collected a year ago, with $91 million collected in the nearly-finished fiscal year.


Patriot Coal Corp. has lined up a deal to sell most of its operating mines to Blackhawk Mining LLC, in a debt-fueled transaction that leaves retirees and union contracts behind

Patriot Coal Corp. has lined up a deal to sell most of its operating mines to Blackhawk Mining LLC, in a debt-fueled transaction that leaves retirees and union contracts behind.

In bankruptcy for the second time in recent years, Patriot has been struggling against declining demand for coal. It is racing to get a deal in place before it runs out of money and is forced to shut down. But it is facing resistance from some creditors to the sale.

Patriot returned to bankruptcy in May, less than 18 months after emerging from chapter 11. The West Virginia mining company said it had a sale in the works that would help it tackle its debt load, which includes $791 million in loans and bond debt.

Blackhawk won’t put up cash for Patriot’s mines. Instead, the transaction will swap out Patriot Coal’s funded debt for new debt securities totaling about $643 million, as well as 30% of the new company to be created out of the bankruptcy buyout.

The new Blackhawk won’t shoulder Patriot’s employee obligations or its contracts with the United Mine Workers of America, said Patriot lawyer Stephen Hessler, speaking at a hearing Wednesday in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Va.



Patriot Coal Files Motion Outlining Proposed Sale of Substantially All Operating Assets to Blackhawk Mining, LLC, Under Chapter 11 Plan

SCOTT DEPOT, W.Va., June 3, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — Patriot Coal Corporation ("Patriot" or "the Company") (OTC Pink: PATCA), a producer and marketer of coal in the eastern United States, today announced that it has filed with the Bankruptcy Court a letter of intent for a proposed sale of a substantial majority of its operating assets to Blackhawk Mining, LLC ("Blackhawk"), as well as a motion outlining bidding procedures. The contemplated transaction would be consummated pursuant to a chapter 11 plan and is subject to documentation of a definitive asset purchase agreement, bankruptcy court approval of the sale, confirmation of a chapter 11 plan, and other customary conditions. Patriot’s mining operations and customer shipments will continue in the ordinary course during the sale process.

Under the terms of the letter of intent, Blackhawk would issue to Patriot’s secured lenders new debt securities totaling approximately $643 million plus Class B Units providing them an ownership stake in Blackhawk.  In addition, Blackhawk would assume or replace surety bonds supporting reclamation and related liabilities associated with the purchased assets.



Patriot Coal to sell most assets to Kentucky-based Blackhawk Mining


Patriot Coal Corp. has announced its intent to sell a “substantial majority” of its operating assets to Blackhawk Mining LLC.

The company will acquire Patriot’s Panther, Rocklick, Wells, Kanawha Eagle, Paint Creek and Midland Trail mining complexes, which are all located in southern West Virginia.

Blackhawk, headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky, already owns mining operations in Mingo and Logan counties in West Virginia, in addition to operating mining facilities in Indiana and Eastern Kentucky.

Patriot filed the motion in bankruptcy court June 3, after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia May 12.


Why Is a Liberal Professor Helping Mitch McConnell Fight for Coal Companies?

By Jonathan Chait


Mitch McConnell, who is leading the fight to stop the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, pointed out last week that he has a surprising ally: “Iconic liberal constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe — who was President Obama’s constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School — said he agrees.” The lawsuit to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the greenhouse gas emissions of existing power plants would, if successful, close out the sole realistic channel that might allow the United States to comply with its international climate commitments, and thus likely doom any international agreement to limit the effects of climate change. The endorsement of Tribe, a famous liberal law professor, has become the right’s favorite talking point. Last December, The Wall Street Journal devoted an entire editorial to extolling this smackdown of Obama from an unimpeachably favorable source. “Professor Tribe delivered a constitutional rebuke this week to the Obama Administration,” the Journal gloated, “that is remarkable coming from a titan of the liberal professoriate.” Reason, the Daily Caller, Jonathan Adler, among others, have likewise touted Tribe’s defection to their side.

None of these conservatives managed to note, even parenthetically, what may be a salient fact: Tribe is being paid for his advocacy by a coal company called Peabody Energy. Only the Journal comes close to disclosing the relationship by noting, “Mr. Tribe joined with the world’s largest private coal company,” though “joined with” makes it sound like Tribe volunteered to endorse Peabody’s argument, as opposed to being hired to do so.

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Tribe is playing an important legal role, which has to be evaluated on its own terms. Other law professors, like Richard Revesz, Jody Freeman, and Richard Lazarus, have called Tribe’s legal argument frivolous and absurd. Tribe has responded. But aside from the legal case Tribe has devised, his advocacy is also playing a crucial public role in the debate — even liberal professor Laurence Tribe noted that Obama’s climate regulations must be unconstitutional, which sounds very different from even coal company lawyer Lawrence Tribe agrees that Obama’s climate regulations must be unconstitutional. Should anybody put weight on Tribe’s endorsement of the anti-Obama lawsuit, any more than they should have taken Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s word for it that O.J. Simpson was innocent?

Tribe, over email, insisted that he personally agrees with his arguments on behalf of Peabody. “I agreed to accept Peabody as a client only on the condition that I’d continue to speak my mind even if not everything I’d say would be to Peabody’s liking,” he wrote.

What makes Tribe’s defense a little strange is that his advocacy has not been limited to narrow legal arguments against the constitutionality of the proposed regulations. Tribe has argued for preserving coal’s cherished place in American economic life. In his legal paper, he writes:

[B]oth Democratic and Republican Administrations have promoted the prudent use of domestic coal in order to reduce dependence on imported oil. In contrast, the Proposed Rule will require a dramatic decline in coal-fired generation of electricity, in order to implement EPA’s system of state-by-state mandates. In fact, under EPA’s plan, the agency envisions that coal generation would be eliminated altogether in 12 states. The Proposed Rule thus reverses policies that reach back to John F. Kennedy. As Hillary Clinton observed in 2007, “I think you have got to admit that coal — of which we have a great and abundant supply in America — is not going away.”

And in his testimony before Congress last week, Tribe calls the administration’s plan to reduce coal use “radical”:

There should be no mistake about how radical EPA’s proposal to phase out the use of coal to generate electrical power actually is. Secretary of State John Kerry described U.S. policy regarding coal-fired power plants: “We’re going to take a bunch of them out of commission.”

He argues instead for subsidizing carbon-capture technology as an alternative means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

Today, greenhouse gas emissions from state-of-the-art coal plants are materially (25 percent) lower than those of traditional power plants, due to improved boilers, increased efficiencies, and other innovations. The United States could also support carbon-capture and storage technologies. An “all of the above” energy policy can support all forms of domestic energy production that will minimize carbon emissions, protect consumers and American jobs, and ensure that the U.S. remains independent from unreliable foreign sources of energy. But burning the Constitution is one thing we should not do as part of our national energy policy.

This is an argument made energetically by coal companies but rejected by energy analysts. Tribe is right that coal has grown less dirty than it used to be, but it’s still far dirtier than any other source of electricity.

The Clean Power Plan would allow states to invest in carbon-capture strategies, and they would dearly love this. But it’s a highly expensive technology that isn’t competitive with other forms of clean energy, and therefore isn’t expected to be widely used, because the regulations encourage states to find the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions. Tribe is advocating a climate policy that makes no economic sense from any standpoint except the self-interest of the coal industry.

I asked Tribe if his guideline about speaking his mind applies to his broader defense of coal or only to his narrow legal arguments. Tribe responded by insisting he was only making narrow legal arguments. His response on this point simply makes no sense to me and seems to contradict the plain meaning of his words. But I will share the whole thing and allow readers to judge:

On the contrary, my advocacy has been confined to arguments about the legality of EPA’s regulatory strategy. In my congressional testimony last Tuesday, for instance, I said: “I want to make clear at the outset that my testimony addresses only the lawfulness of what EPA proposes to do; I claim no expertise in, nor will I be testifying about, the pros and cons of EPA’s plan as a response to the issues posed by climate change. My conclusion as a legal scholar and student of the Constitution is that EPA’s proposal not only exceeds the agency’s statutory and legal authority but also directly violates limits enacted by Congress to restrict EPA’s power and raises serious constitutional questions.”

The fact that the paper I submitted last December quoted statements by Hillary Clinton and others about how, under present policies, “coal . . . is not going away,” doesn’t change that one iota. Those statements were historically accurate (and indeed uncontroversial) descriptions of the situation as it has existed up to now, and they are relevant to my Fifth Amendment point. As I said in my testimony, “a central point of the Fifth Amendment’s combined requirements of Due Process and Just Compensation is that, except when phasing out intrinsically harmful activity that injures identifiable individuals or businesses, the Government is not free simply to pick those whose investment-backed expectations are to be eliminated for the greater good. When regulating an entity out of existence generates diffuse benefits for the public at large that exceed the targeted costs imposed on the unlucky few, the Fifth Amendment’s basic teaching is that the few should be justly compensated by the many. The point is not that the Government is bound by a constitutional duty not to change course — no constitutional principle freezes the Government in its tracks. But when the Government’s change in course drastically undercuts investment-backed expectations that amount to property interests, the Government is bound by a constitutional duty to pay, whether under the rubric of just compensation or under the rubric of due process.”

The same is true of my quotation from Secretary Kerry about the administration’s intent to “take a bunch of [coal-powered plants] out of commission.” That’s exactly what Secretary Kerry said, and I quoted it just to underscore the inaccuracy of the claims that the EPA Clean Power Plan isn’t targeted at that goal. I haven’t expressed any personal opinions or made any policy arguments “on behalf of a coal-inclusive energy strategy” but have made factually indisputable statements about what’s going on insofar as it might be relevant to my legal analysis. And, when you refer to my “policy views on coal,” I truly don’t know what you’re referencing. I have expressed no such views.

I followed up by asking Tribe if he would disclose what percentage of his income has come from energy companies. He replied, “It’s a very small percentage. And I’m afraid I don’t have any more time to devote to this dialogue today, so I’ll need to beg off on further questions.”


"I thought it was normal not to be able to drink your own tap water.”

After the Spill: Life in West Virginia’s Coal Country

One year after the Elk River chemical disaster, has the Mountain State’s approach to mining changed?

Omar Ghabra Jan 9 2015, 11:04 AM ET


CHARLESTON, W. Va.—At 8:16 a.m. on the morning of January 9, 2014, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection received the first of what would quickly become an avalanche of complaints. A man in Charleston, the state’s capital, called to report that there was “something in the air” and it was irritating his wife’s throat. Two-and-a-half hours later, the first media report of the incident surfaced on a local NBC affiliate’s Facebook page: “BREAKING: Firefighters are investigating a strong smell in the Kanawha Valley.” “Is it safe to go out?” asked the first commenter on the post.

DEP inspectors arrived at the Freedom Industries Charleston plant, which sits along the Elk River on the edge of town, at 11:15 a.m. They quickly discovered the source of the smell was 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, an industrial chemical used for purifying coal before it is burned. The toxic substance was pouring from two small holes, one about the size of a penny and the other half as big, on the bottom of a single storage tank at the Freedom Industries facility, which had not been inspected since 1991. Over a span of at least 20 hours, approximately 10,000 gallons of the MCHM chemical mixture leaked out of Tank 396 and into the Elk River, eventually finding its way to Charleston’s main water treatment plant.

The spill left more than 300,000 West Virginians, about one-sixth of the state’s total population, without access to potable water.

At 5:36 p.m., Governor Earl Ray Tomblin finally issued a statement, an ominous message posted to his Twitter page: “EMERGENCY: Do NOT use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing in Boone, Lincoln, Kanawha, Jackson, Putnam counties.” By the end of the day, Tomblin declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard. A do-not-use order commanded that the contaminated water only be used for flushing toilets and extinguishing fires. The spill left more than 300,000 West Virginians, about one-sixth of the state’s total population, without access to potable water. Schools were closed. Restaurants, bars, and hotels were also shuttered. Residents scrambled to supermarkets, gas stations, and even vending machines to secure bottled water, which quickly sold out everywhere. Hospital emergency rooms were overwhelmed with hundreds of patients who all exhibited the same pattern of symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, headache, itching, rash, vomiting, and stomach pain.

Forty-two miles from the Freedom Industries facility, Junior Walk, a 24-year-old lifelong West Virginia resident, first learned about the spill on the radio while at the makeshift office for the Coal River Mountain Watch, a local environmental watchdog where he works. Walk wasn’t surprised. As soon as he discovered the magnitude of the spill, he loaded up the bed of his red 1991 Ford Ranger with two 55-gallon barrels full of water and delivered them to fire departments and other distribution centers in the nearby areas that were hit.

Walk grew up in the coal town of Whitesville in Boone County, one of the nine counties affected by the leak. When he was twelve years old, his family moved from a remote area, what he describes in his energetic Appalachian accent as “the head of a holler,” closer to town. “Our water used to be pristine before we moved,” Walk recalls. But their new home was close to a site used by nearby mining operations to deposit coal slurry—a thick, black sludge comprised of waste fluid produced in the coal preparation process.


This toxic waste is often injected underground into abandoned coal mines, a process that can easily result in the leaching of slurry into nearby groundwater. It wasn’t long before contaminated well water in their new home came out of the faucet, discolored and fetid. “I can’t even describe the stench. We didn’t drink it, but I had to shower in it.” For five years, until their home was hooked up to a municipal water supply, Walk says he went to school smelling like the contaminated water every day, and his family could not use tap water for drinking or cooking.

West Virginia’s economy has heavily relied on the coal industry for decades. In the 1950s, the industry employed some 125,000 people. Today, mechanization and the rise of natural gas have driven that number down to anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000. Wal-Mart, not the coal industry, is now the state’s leading employer. Like many West Virginians, Walk’s family members have been employed by the coal industry for generations. His father worked at a coal prep plant until he was recently laid off.

“When I was getting ready to graduate high school, I realized that I didn’t have the grades nor the money to go to college, so I was kind of stuck here,” Walk says. “Like everybody else in that situation around here, I only had a few options: go to work for the coal industry, sell prescription drugs, or join the military.” West Virginia has the highest drug overdose mortality rate of all fifty states. It also has one of the largest veteran populations per capita, and the lowest rate of adults with college degrees.

For Walk, the decision seemed simple. “I went to work for the coal industry.” However, within months of working at a coal prep plant in the nearby town of Sylvester, he began having second thoughts.

"I thought it was normal not to be able to drink your own tap water.”

“Some days I would be in the plant basement waist deep in this coal sludge, the same stuff that contaminated my water when I was a kid, preparing it to be pumped up to a slurry dam.” He feared prolonged exposure to the slurry would be harmful to his health. Walk also says he was asked to violate safety regulations on a regular basis, except when the state inspectors were coming. “We always knew when the inspectors were coming,” he alleges. “They always called ahead.”

After six months, the combination of concerns for his personal health and a guilty conscience led Walk to quit his job. He began anonymously writing about what he had seen for an environmental newsletter and was eventually hired by the Coal River Mountain Watch.

“My whole life, I’ve seen this pattern of industry being allowed to do what it wants in this state,” Walk says, reflecting on the Elk River spill one year later. “My first reaction when I heard about it was that this is business as usual for West Virginia.”

To Walk, the Charleston spill was just the latest symptom of a deep-seated problem in the Mountain State. Throughout his life, from his time attending a now abandoned elementary school that was situated a few yards from a coal processing plant and slurry impoundment to his experience working for a coal company, Walk has lived through many of these symptoms, though he didn’t always realize there was anything extraordinary about them. “I thought everyone had big piles of coal right next to their playground at school. I thought it was normal not to be able to drink your own tap water.”

Other symptoms can be more catastrophic. On the afternoon of April 5, 2010, the Walk family home was shaken by an explosion at the nearby Upper Big Branch coal mine. Twenty-nine miners died in what was the deadliest American mining disaster in decades. A federal investigation found the explosion was the direct result of Massey Energy executives willfully and systematically skirting safety regulations.

“These aren’t all isolated incidents. They’re interconnected,” Walk insists. “The same loose regulatory environment that produced Upper Big Branch, that poisoned my well water growing up, that poisons the air surrounding these surface mines everyday also gave us the Elk River spill.”

Above:  The Upper Big Branch Memorial, dedicated to the 29 miners who died in a 2010 explosion at a coal mine operated by Massey Energy (Omar Ghabra)

Michael Hendryx, a public health researcher at Indiana University who studies the health effects of coal mining in West Virginia, also wasn’t surprised when he heard about the spill. Hendryx co-authored a series of studies that linked a number of troubling health outcomes to the areas with heavy coal mining. His research found that residents of West Virginia’s mining counties were more likely to suffer from kidney disease, obstructive lung diseases, and high blood pressure than their counterparts in non-mining counties. Other studies found higher rates of mortality, cancer, birth defects, total poverty, and child poverty in the areas surrounding mountaintop-removal coal mining sites.

Critics have often dismissed these studies for failing to demonstrate that these negative health effects are caused directly by mining. Hendryx’s most recent study, published last October, established that direct link by showing that the coal dust emitted into the atmosphere at mountaintop mining sites is carcinogenic.

“I entered this area of research with no preconceptions about whether or not I’d find evidence for health problems, but as the evidence has mounted, I am completely convinced that [mountaintop removal mining] is harmful to the health of people who live nearby,” Hendryx says.  “It causes air, water and soil pollution in residential communities close to mining. It is not an environment conducive to good health.”

Although the number of jobs the coal industry provides is dwindling, they remain some of the best-paying jobs for the state’s largely uneducated workforce, with an estimated average salary of $68,500. The median household income in the state is $41,043, over $12,000 less than the national median. The industry also provides nearly half a billion dollars in tax revenue each year to the state’s budget. These economic factors, along with the pride many West Virginians feel about a profession that runs in their families, make it difficult to criticize the industry in the state.

Walk, who now spends much of his time traveling the country to spread awareness on the dangerous effects of mining, did not endear himself to his community when he began speaking out. As soon as he decided to take a job with the Coal River Mountain Watch, his father, who was still employed by the coal industry at the time and feared the potential backlash, asked him to move out.


“Because I’m a local, many view me as a Benedict Arnold,” he says. “I should know better because coal put food on my table, they tell me.” He says he’s been shot at numerous times and the brake lines in his truck were cut in what he believes was an attempt on his life. Walk keeps a bulletproof vest in his pick-up truck and his gun is always nearby.

These types of incidents aren’t unprecedented in the area. One of Walk’s mentors, the late Larry Gibson, was profiled in Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and social critic Chris Hedges’ most recent book. After becoming a prominent anti-mountaintop removal activist and testifying at the United Nations, Gibson was the target of an intense intimidation campaign. According to Hedges, Gibson’s cabin was burned down, two of his dogs were shot, trucks routinely tried to run him off the road, and he “endured drive-by shootings.”

Activists aren’t the only critics of the industry who are targeted for speaking out. Hendryx, who taught at West Virginia University before taking his current job at Indiana, says the coal industry has gone after his work with negative editorials in friendly newspapers and by funding its own research to dispute his findings. While at WVU, which accepts millions in donations from the coal industry, Hendryx says he had to tread carefully.

Walk keeps a bulletproof vest in his pick-up truck and his gun is always nearby.

“I felt that I was carefully watched and had to be extra cautious in anything I said in an interview or paper,” he says. In one strange instance, a WVU spokesman issued a request to the press to refrain from using the phrase “WVU study” to describe research conducted by faculty members at the university. “The findings of any particular research project do not reflect—nor should they—any particular opinion or position of the university itself,” read the university’s statement. Many, including Hendryx, interpreted the unprecedented request as WVU’s attempt to distance itself from Hendryx’s work, which was garnering national attention. WVU’s own public-relations arm, WVU Today, continues to use the phrase “WVU study” to describe a wide variety of research conducted at WVU. Despite this incident, Hendryx insists he left WVU voluntarily and there were never any direct attempts to interfere with or block his research while he was there.

If one were passing through Charleston today, it would be hard to tell that one of the worst water contamination incidents in U.S. history occurred here just one year ago. The site of the spill at 1015 Barlow Drive sits inconspicuously along the Elk River, blending right in with other abandoned industrial structures in its vicinity. The Freedom Industries sign has long been removed. Though many residents continue to drink bottled water, you won’t hear many people talking about their lingering suspicions regarding the safety of their tap water. Most of them have accepted these doubts as a fact of life and are moving on.

Last month, six employees and executives from Freedom Industries were indicted for failing to meet “a reasonable standard of care” in managing their company. In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said “the conditions at the Freedom Industries facility were not only grievously unacceptable, but unlawful. They put an entire population needlessly at risk.”

In November, federal prosecutors charged former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for his role in the violations of safety regulations at the Upper Big Branch mine precipitating the disastrous explosion in 2010. “Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year,” reads the damning indictment. “He had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing. Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”

For Walk, who attended Blankenship’s arraignment, these indictments are a positive development, but they don’t go far enough. “These guys are scapegoats,” he says. “They’re just the ones that got caught.”


“The industry and its proponents in our government want us to believe these guys are just a few bad apples, that these are all isolated incidents. Well, they’re not. The whole damn system is guilty.”

Neil Berch, a political science professor at West Virginia University, agrees state officials made a conscious effort not to associate the Elk River spill with the coal industry as a whole.

“The chemical leak wasn’t even an issue in the midterm elections a few months ago,” Berch says. Instead, the typical pandering to the coal industry and anti-regulation rhetoric from the state’s political candidates were even more pronounced as vulnerable Democrats tried to shake the perception that they were a part of what the industry alleges is President Obama’s “war on coal.”

“If anything, the Democrats were downplaying the spill,” Berch says. “Just like with Blankenship and the Upper Big Branch tragedy, they turned it into a ‘this guy is the evildoer and we are going to get him’ instead of tying it to a pattern of behavior.”

The Democrats’ strategy didn’t work. Congressman Nick Rahall, who had been in office since 1977, lost to a former Democratic state legislator who had switched parties so he could run against him. Republicans also captured outgoing Senator Jay Rockefeller’s open Senate seat and an open House seat. At the state level, Republicans now control both houses of the legislature; a Republican now serves as president of the state senate for the first time since Herbert Hoover occupied the White House. “Obviously, the Republicans are going to be more pro-industry and anti-regulation than the Democrats ever were,” Berch says.

Despite the seemingly impossible odds Walk finds himself up against, he’s not going anywhere. He recently proposed to his girlfriend and plans on buying a house near Whitesville.

“This is my home. This is where my whole family is,” he says. “It’s beautiful. I love to hunt, I love getting in the woods. It’s part of my culture. It’s in my blood. I can’t just back down and let them take it. It would feel too much like losing—too much like letting them win.”