In Wise County, way down in southwestern Virginia, Black Mountain forms part of the Virginia-Kentucky border. On the Virginia side, Black Mountain’s ridge curves protectively around the upper Powell River watershed, which, along with the watersheds of the Clinch and Holston rivers, forms the headwaters of the Tennessee River system.
The Nature Conservancy calls this 2,200-square-mile area in southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee the Clinch Valley Bioreserve, and has designated it “one of the world’s last great places.” Called “the most ecologically diverse region of Virginia” by the Conservancy, these river valleys contain more than 400 species of rare plants and animals, 22 of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Powell and Clinch rivers are home to 16 species of rare fish and one of the world’s richest concentrations of freshwater mussels. The number of identified mussel species has dwindled from 60 to about 40, with 26 of those listed by the Conservancy as globally rare.
You’d think such a special ecosystem would be cherished and protected, but it isn’t. Like much of this area of southern Appalachia, Black Mountain contains buried treasure: black gold, also known as coal.
The mountain is owned by coal companies, and to get the coal out as quickly and cheaply as possible, they scrape off the forests and blast off the sides and tops of the mountains, dumping rubble, or “spoil,” in the surrounding coves and hollows.
The restoration of “approximate original contour” (AOC) as required by the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), results in alien-looking grassy terraces and plateaus where steep, forested mountains once stood.
In Kentucky, the Black Mountain summit, at over 4,000 feet, is the highest point in the state. When a knob adjacent to the summit was threatened by mountaintop removal mining in 1998, citizen groups successfully petitioned the state to end coal mining above 3,500 feet by declaring those lands “unsuitable for mining.”
The lower portions of the mountain, of course, are still subject to strip mining. In December 1999, the state bought the timber and mineral rights to the summit from the seven coal and timber companies that own it. Penn Virginia Corporation still owns the surface of the summit itself, however, and it’s off-limits to the public; the company says the five coal mines riddling the mountain might collapse.
According to a 1999 U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) report on AOC variances and post mining land uses in Virginia, mountaintop removal mining — blasting away 500 to 1,000 feet of the entire top of the mountain — accounts for only 3 percent of the total acreage mined in Virginia, and steep-slope strip mining accounts for only 4 percent of the total acreage.
However, a Virginia Division of Mined Land Reclamation (DMLR) map of existing and proposed surface mines on Black Mountain shows that about half of the Virginia side of the mountain is being stripped.
Mike Abbott, public relations manager at the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) office in Big Stone Gap, says that much of Black Mountain has been previously mined, and that many of the old mines were abandoned before SMCRA, and, therefore, never “reclaimed.” So the DMME offers incentives to coal companies to re-mine such abandoned mine lands to “accelerate re-mining activities, promote economic growth, and reclaim abandoned mine land areas that ordinarily would never be reclaimed.”
The incentives include: streamlined permitting, exceptions to the state’s water pollution abatement regulations; complimentary mapping and surveying support by DMLR; permission to re-mine abandoned mine lands outside permit boundaries without another permit and without posting a performance bond; and permission to dump spoil on adjacent abandoned mine lands.
Carl “Pete” Ramey, 72, is a retired coal miner. The son and grandson of deep miners, he worked in the deep mines for 37 years. He’s suffered increasingly from black lung for more than 30 years, but hasn’t been able to wring any compensation from the coal companies. The disease is incurable, and just gets worse.
Pete grew up in Inman, one of the many coal camps that lined the creeks that flow from the hollows of Black Mountain. His wife of 54 years, Juanita, grew up in nearby Roda, where the couple settled and raised their two daughters. Now, they and all their neighbors fear they’ll have to leave their homes — forced out by the impacts of a Roda Resources strip mine on the mountain that could come as close as 300 feet from their back doors.
At a DMME public hearing on the permit for the proposed mine in May, Pete recalls that a DMME employee told the assembled concerned residents, “I just want you people to know what’s coming at you — the blasting will rattle your windows, and shake your pictures off the wall and your dishes out of your cabinets.”
When Pete asked what could be done about it, the DMME employee said, “Nothing — that’s within the legal blasting limit.”
Pat Jervis teaches history and geology at nearby Appalachia High School. Appalachia, he says, used to be the busiest town in southwestern Virginia, but, like most coal towns, it’s been dying over the last 20 years. He says coal companies already have permits to mine 14,000 acres on Black Mountain, and there are more proposed permits in the works.
Pat says the latest Roda Resources mine will destroy two streams — McHenry Fork and Lick Branch. Odd, considering that the OSM report states that, before issuing a steep slope strip-mining permit, “DMME/DMLR must find, among many things, that there will be watershed improvement.”
So, what will become of the residents of Roda? If you live in a coal camp surrounded by the blasting of strip mines, you can’t sell your house. Who would buy it? You bear the shaking, the cracked walls, and the dust as long as you can, and then you simply walk away.
It’s a scenario that’s been played out so many times in these hollows — where all that’s left of communities like Pardee, Dunbar, Linden, Twenty Town, and countless others are their names.
To help fight the strip mining on Black Mountain, contact the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards — a local advocacy group — at 540/565-0595.