CHARLESTON, W.VA. — Walter Young can't find his great-grandmother's grave. The coal company that had it moved doesn't know where the remains ended up.
"It always looked like a safe, good place nobody would bother," the 63-year-old retiree said of the cemetery along Pigeon Creek where his relative, Martha Curry, was buried. "It was up on a hill."
But that hill was in West Virginia's southern coal fields, and over the years, it changed hands. The land around and under the cemetery passed from one coal company to another as mines grew up around it. Now, no one is sure where Young's great-grandmother was ultimately laid to rest.
The loss is a problem that resonates across West Virginia as small family cemeteries and unmarked graves get in the way of mining, timbering and development interests. Advocates are asking state lawmakers this year to enact regulations that would require better tracking of the graves and protect families.
"We just keep hearing about more and more cases of it," said Carol Warren, a project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Young hadn't visited his great-grandmother's grave regularly since the 1970s, but he wanted to check on it when he realized the cemetery, near Delbarton in the southwestern corner of the state, was near a site being built to store coal waste. When he called for permission to cross company property, he was dumbfounded by the response. The company that now operates the site didn't know where the grave had been relocated.
"I wanted to secure in my mind that this cemetery was OK. I found out it wasn't OK. It was gone," Young said.
The graves get lost because sometimes nearby mining makes it difficult for families to gain access to burial grounds. Sometimes, companies don't give proper public notice before removing or disturbing the graves.
One measure being pushed by the coalition would triple the no-disturbance buffer zone around cemeteries from 100 feet to 300 feet. Another would delete seemingly contradictory language in a law intended to protect human remains, grave artifacts and markers. Currently the law says it isn't meant to "interfere" with normal activities by landowners, whether they be farmers, developers or coal operators.
The law is vague and allows individuals to waive any responsibility, said House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, a co-sponsor on two measures.
"The more vague a law is, the less likely it is to be enforced," said Perdue. "I really believe that we have to make sure that hallowed ground is not hollowed ground or harrowed ground."
A third proposal would require coal companies to explain ahead of time how proposed surface mines would affect nearby cemeteries. And a fourth would allow West Virginia University's extension service to use Global Positioning System to map and plot small cemeteries near mountaintop removal mines.
"Let's begin the process of trying to document where all these small cemeteries are located," said Delegate Robert Beach.
The legislation was prompted by a flyover Beach took last year of mountaintop removal mines. The mining method involves blowing up ridgelines to expose several coal seams.
A lot of people living near the expanding surface mines are afraid family cemeteries are "just going to be covered over and become nonexistent," Beach said.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Assn., says coal operators follow the law and try to be sensitive about the cemeteries, treating families with dignity. However, he can't say how often such disputes arise.
International Coal Group's Patriot Mining Co. is currently in court in northern West Virginia, seeking approval to relocate a cemetery where the last burial occurred more then 70 years ago. Patriot received permission last year to move a nearby cemetery.
Patriot estimates there is 7,000 tons of coal beneath the 22 graves it wants to move. Because of buffer zone and blasting laws, Patriot technical services manager Tom Jones said 80,000 to 100,000 tons of coal would be lost if the cemetery isn't relocated. At today's spot market prices, the coal would be worth at least $5.2 million.
Patriot says it will treat the remains with respect and move them to a public cemetery with perpetual care where friends and family can visit. Eight of 12 descendants have agreed, but one is challenging the move.
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition organizer Robin Blakeman doesn't know how much coal is beneath her family cemetery in Brier Branch Hollow. The Harless-Bradshaw Cemetery had been used by her family and the nearby community since the mid-1800s and contains the grave of a Civil War cavalry corporal. The last burial was in 2001, and the area is now overgrown by trees.
In the last five years, Blakeman has watched Ravencrest Contracting slowly encircle the wooded knoll where the cemetery is located. The former farm passed out of her family's hands more then 50 years ago. The family now relies on state law and an agreement with the coal operator to reach the cemetery on a gravel roadway used to haul coal out of the mine.
On a recent Saturday, Blakeman planted Gladiolus bulbs near several of the stones. As she worked, the sound of heavy mining machinery and trucks drifted across the narrow valley.
"Sometimes in the midst of all this destruction, sometimes the only thing you can do is try and add a little bit of beauty," Blakeman said. "I'm also thinking these flowers will at least alert somebody to the fact that somebody cares."