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Moving mountains

Coal River How a Few Brave Americans Took on a Powerful Company--and the Federal Government--to Save the Land They Love Michael Shnayerson Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 336 pp., $25

January 06, 2008|Judith Lewis | Judith Lewis is a staff writer for LA Weekly.

"Something looks very wrong with West Virginia," begins Michael Shnayerson's "Coal River," the story of the legal fight to stop a staggeringly destructive process known as mountaintop removal mining. Viewed from the air, Shnayerson writes, the land bears scars that resemble cancer, or blight, "except that there's nothing for a blight to infect: everything, from trees to grass, is gone."

For the last two decades, in an accelerating pursuit of faster and cheaper ways to pull coal from the land, more than 1.5 million acres of land in the storied Appalachian Mountains have been blown away with explosives. Ancient forests have been clear-cut, streams buried and wildlife uprooted. Slurry, laden with heavy metals, pours down the stricken mountains; floodwaters surge unrestrained by vegetation into once-pristine backyards and subsistence gardens. Children in local schools downwind of waste pits complain of nausea and headaches. In one Appalachian town, where people have lived off the land for generations, coal-mining's pollution has dropped life expectancy to 55.

Only Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the National Mining Assn. reports, provides the U.S. with more coal than the mountains of central Appalachia, which includes eastern Kentucky, northern Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. Despite its contribution to climate change and acid rain, coal remains king: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, coal is the nation's workhorse, supplying more than half of our electricity. And though environmentalists as famous as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have railed against mountaintop removal and a handful of local residents have tried to stand against it (some driven to suicide after their homes and the land around them were ruined), the practice has only become more widespread. From 1985 to 2001, reports the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 700 miles of healthy streams have been ruined by tumbling sludge.

But in the spring of 2007, a small miracle occurred: After years of frustrated attempts, and against the backdrop of mostly out-of-state rabble-rousers, a tenacious lawyer managed to bring the right case to the right judge and secure a ruling that environmentalists hoped would end the blatantly offensive practice of mountaintop removal mining forever. Shnayerson's book is a precise account of that battle, the story of how a lawyer named Joe Lovett, of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, took on the coal-mining industry and managed to eke out a significant, if tenuous, victory. In a landmark ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers at long last ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop giving permits to mining companies that empty millions of tons of waste into waterways. Four permits were rescinded, pending further review. Environmentalists were overjoyed; the coal barons were shocked.

Lovett's chief foe in the story is Massey Energy, based in Richmond, Va., the nation's fourth-largest coal producer by revenue and, by every measure, the dirtiest: Its 19 mining complexes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia have racked up nearly six times as many environmental citations as other mining operations in those states. At its helm is a man named Don Blankenship whose union-busting and flagrant disregard of the public good have branded him a bogey man: An article in the online magazine Grist.org declared him one of the "scariest" polluters in the U.S., and a commentator in a West Virginia public television documentary remarked that if Blankenship weren't a millionaire, "he'd be the person you'd avoid in the grocery store." Though Blankenship managed through a series of expensive television commercials to unseat a State Supreme Court judge in 2003, in 2006 a full 39 of the 40 candidates he bankrolled for public office lost; his only winner had faced an opponent confined to a nursing home.

The "boyish" and underpaid Lovett versus rich, old Blankenship might have been a sound structure upon which to build a driving narrative, but Shnayerson, who has written evocative, indignant prose about the Appalachian coal fields before, has bigger ambitions. A Vanity Fair contributing editor, Shnayerson devotes "Coal River" to an intricate dissection of the legal process by which Lovett secured his recent victory. Shnayerson tells the sad truth of how union workers "decried the environmental groups whose selfish lawsuits had put union miners out of work"; he chronicles the Corps' backroom deals with the mining companies. He tells of how each ruling by a lower court got overturned by the conservative 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and describes the ups-and-downs of each expert's testimony at each hearing. The result is a comprehensive and informative book, a resource for anyone interested in the war against King Coal.

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