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A bird's-eye view of the mountaintop-removal mine that emptied Lindytown, West Virginia.

A bird's-eye view of the mountaintop-removal mine that emptied Lindytown, West Virginia.

Photograph by Ami Vitale

Pat Walters

for National Geographic

Published September 6, 2013

Walk to the edge of the Jarrell family cemetery in the mountains of southern West Virginia, a plot of land the size of a tennis court where locals have been laid to rest for more than 200 years, and you'll come to a cliff that drops hundreds of feet.

Stretching out before you will be a strip mine so large you could hide the island of Manhattan in it.

To your rear will be 40 graves—old men and women, small children, veterans of conflicts from the Civil War to World War II—surrounded by a white, split-rail fence and a thin ring of trees. Underfoot: approximately four billion dollars' worth of coal.

It's a surreal scene, this "island in the sky," as Debbie Jarrell put it in a lawsuit she and five others filed two weeks ago against Alpha Natural Resources, which operates the mine surrounding the cemetery. This place that was once intensely private has now become the center of a very public fight, between the people who treasure the top of the mountain and those who yearn to get at what's beneath it.

Bad History

The two sides have been quarrelling for years, says Maria Gunnoe, a local environmental activist and a co-plaintiff of Jarrell's—at least since 2008, when Massey Energy, Alpha's predecessor, started buying out Lindytown, the community that sat downhill from the cemetery. By 2011, only the Richmond family—Lawrence, Quinnie, and their son Roger—remained. Today, only Roger is left. Roger and the cemetery.

But on April 23 of this year, Gunnoe says, the dispute intensified. That morning, she, Jarrell, and the other plaintiffs, including 78-year-old Leo Cook, began a long journey to the cemetery. They dressed in jeans and heavy shirts with fluorescent construction vests draped over top, and slipped on professional-grade steel-toed boots. They wore hard hats. After all, the road to the cemetery winds through a working strip mine—its official name is the Twilight Mine—up two and a half miles of hairpin switchbacks.

First they checked in at a guard house, where they confirmed their appointment—requests to visit the cemetery must be made ten days in advance—and sat down for a 30-minute class on mine safety. Then an Alpha employee led their small caravan up the mountain, passing house-size dump trucks that made their full-size pickups look like toys.

None of that was surprising, Gunnoe says—she and the others had made the trip before—but what she saw at the top was: headstones overturned and broken, trees lying on the ground, cracks in the earth.

A Lawsuit Is Filed

"They destroyed it," she says. Gunnoe provided National Geographic News a photograph showing fallen trees lying across several graves and the splintered remains of a section of fence. (Photos showing the toppled headstones exist, she says, but her lawyer advised against making them public because of the litigation.) The lawsuit claims Alpha desecrated graves and encroached on a 100-foot buffer required by state law, and demands the mine back off and pay unspecified monetary damages.

Alpha spokesperson Steve Higginbottom denied these claims and provided a photograph of the same site, dated five months later, showing the trees gone, the fence intact.

Gunnoe says she stood in shock that day, surveying the damage, and then, out in the abyss of broken rock beyond the edge of the cemetery, a massive charge exploded. "The sound was deafening," she says. "I thought Leo was going to have a heart attack." The earth trembled under her feet, and dust coated the inside of her nose.

According to Higginbottom, Alpha did not blast in the vicinity of the cemetery that day, and a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection official who joined the group on the visit filed no violations (nor did he return a message left on his phone).

When Gunnoe and her friends got home, they began preparing their legal case.

So Many Graves, So Many Mines

As fraught as the Jarrell cemetery situation is, it's not unique. "Cemeteries are strewn throughout mines all over the state," says Tom Clarke, mining and reclamation division director for the West Virginia DEP.

Sometimes, he says, they are destroyed before anyone notices. Very occasionally they are moved. And in at least a few dozen cases, they've ended up like the Jarrell cemetery: spared, but teetering at the edge of a mine.

Gunnoe has documented three cemeteries in or on the edge of the Twilight Mine, and several more in other mines nearby. "It's the final insult," she says. "These cemeteries are our history, our culture."

Dustin White, one of Gunnoe's co-plaintiffs, says he's worried he won't be able to carry out his mother's final wish to be buried with her family in the Cook Cemetery, surrounded, as it is, by a mine. "Imagine the funeral procession," he says. "Hard hats, boots, a mine escort, everybody in four-wheel-drive vehicles."

The Miners' Concerns

Asked if he has family in any mine-bound cemeteries, Clarke, the DEP man, says, "I'd sure be surprised if I didn't." Seven generations of his family lie in the hills of West Virginia. "Would I like my cemetery to be mined around? Probably not. But if I had friends and relatives who put food on their tables and sent their kids to college with money that came out of that mine, I might feel differently."

Those who might feel differently are all around. Alpha is the largest employer in the county, by a factor of two, and about half the county works in mining. The average mining machine operator in West Virginia makes $52,700 a year, considerably higher than the state's $39,600 median income. "Not everybody is happy with the way the folks who filed this lawsuit are behaving," Clarke says.

Gunnoe has an altogether different concern: that more damage will be done, even as the legal case plods forward. "Things move slowly through our courts here in West Virginia," Gunnoe says. How slowly? "We'll be lucky to hear something—like, anything—in five years."

25 comments
James Mays
James Mays

The fact is we live in a free enterprise country and business is priority number one.  If one has the means to exploit nature and the result is profit then, that economic entity has fulfilled the american dream.  Unfortunately there are economic entities that are impacted by the original actors profit making effort. 

States are governed by representatives in assembly that make laws to define the rights of competing actors.  Talk to your representative personally and petition for a law that suits you.  You can bet the other side is doing that.  

Since this problem exists throughout the states in different arenas, it is a good bet that citizens (only they can vote) are not doing their due diligence and have a lower priority for the problems caused by economic exploitation than the economic actors. 

John Gensheimer
John Gensheimer

These plaintiffs are not in it for the money. They are good people who see this as just one more thing that the coal companies and the egregious practice of MTR has destroyed or taken away from them. 

Conwaythe Contaminationist
Conwaythe Contaminationist

Strip mining is one thing, but...

Why do people worry about and have bizarre attachments to piles of old, rotten bones? The dead are the least of our worries, and they couldn't care less about what happens to them, considering that they no longer exist. I challenge anyone to prove otherwise, using empirical facts, not superstitious sophistry or emotional appeals.

Really, what is so sacred about a corpse; especially since we collectively treat so many of those living like the dirt under our feet?

Cemeteries are, in reality, little more than human landfill, and a waste of space. 

I candidly submit that the plaintiffs are more worried about the thickness of their wallets, rather than the putrescent remains of their deceased "loved ones".

Jeanetta Leedy
Jeanetta Leedy

Michael Passaretti < after the mining is done they reclaim the land! they plant trees, and do tons of things to make it a beautiful habitat for animals again. Where i'm from they recently built a high school on reclaimed strip, its called Mingo Central and guess what the mascot it is... that's right the MINERS! We all cant just pack up our families and move away.. I just don't understand why people that have never visited this area or even been around here are the ones who are 1st to judge!

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

I have read that other places that respect others, move the cemetery before raping and pillaging the land. There doesn't seem to be much of that sensitivity and concern around anymore. 

I guess it will be quite a sight to see the bones and cadavers of loved ones scattered across the landscape. That would attract me to the area - not.

Michael Passaretti
Michael Passaretti

Sorry Jeanetta but we can't stop raping the earth because we all make a living from it is not a valid excuse. They are turning the beautiful state of West Virginia into a pit. If there is no other way to earn a living MOVE ! We are turning the planet into a dump.

Teresa Frazier
Teresa Frazier

There is no respect for the living. Why would they respect our dead?

Jeanetta Leedy
Jeanetta Leedy

Born and Raised In this area, these mines feed our families, there is no other work around here! we do not have mills or factory's to work in! this pays our bills and takes care of our families!  I understand the worry over the cemetery, but soon that area will be mined out and the family will have uncontrolled visitation and all of the rights to travel to and from. People from other places do not understand and want to ban Strip and deep mining, but with out it our small towns would be ghost. there would be no work for anyone! the restaurants and shops would have no costumers, every single business around here relies on COAL! People come from away from here and ask why not build things to sale, or dig ginseng root to sale ... who would buy new furniture or ginseng if they didn't have a job to pay for it? and how many new chairs does a family need? not enough to support a family of 4 or more! People are so quick to judge us "hillbillys" but it is our way of life! Our MEN work hard to provide for us.

Tom Mengel
Tom Mengel

Unfortunately there is nothing new here, just traditional American greed at it's very best.  King Cole and it's rich overseers have owned W. Virginia for so long and are so entrenched there the residents are nothing more than surfs to the system from the get-go.  Big Pols and paid off state officials with egos bigger than the open pit mines they helped to create.  A sad example of the ecological disaster the rest of the country should strive to avoid.

Julia Walker
Julia Walker

Absolutely appalling what West Virginia mining does to the mountains and W. Va needs laws to protect it peoples final resting place!

Jim Wills
Jim Wills

I grew up in this area and have been to this cemetery many times, back when my friends and I rode our dirt bikes through the mountains nearly every Sunday.  

All of us who live - and lived - in that part of West Virginia understand the need for energy, and our friends' and neighbors' need for jobs, but it is impossible to overstate the coal companies' greed, but more importantly the utter disdain that they - AT Massey in particular - have for the people of West Virginia.  Or their utter disregard for any sort of decency.

Nearly all the landholders and the mining companies' big shots live in other states, so they really don't care what they do in West Virginia.  AT Massey, a non-union company, is headquartered in Richmond, VA.  You may remember them as responsible for the Upper Big Branch mine disaster of April, 2010, where their greed and negligence was responsible for the deaths of 29 miners.  One was my lifelong best friend.

This scenario was played out once before, when West Virginians fought the Baldwin-Felts "Detective" agency, of Roanoke, Virginia, during the Mine Wars of the 1920's.  John Sales' movie, "Matewan," starring James Earl Jones, does an excellent job of demonstrating how the West Virginians were mistreated then.  That ended in bloodshed.  Let's hope this doesn't, as well.          

Xira Arien
Xira Arien

There are other ways to mine the ground, but they don't return quite as high a % to the stockholders...

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

Bettina Monique
Bettina Monique

@Jeanetta Leedy You know the coal is gong to run out, right?  Then what are you going to do without any other training?  And maybe you shouldn't be relying on your men to feed you since they are probably going to die in a mining accident because the mining companies don't care about their employees well being and will find someone else desperate enough to fill that void.

Cobra Choppergirl
Cobra Choppergirl

@Jeanetta Leedy Why don't you people like actually work and make something.   Like build stuff.  Or plant and grow stuff.  Instead of digging up rocks and trying to sell them.  I'm just saying.   There is plenty of work everywhere you are... you just need to sit down and... make it.  Instead of clear cutting mother nature and digging her all up to pieces and back, and then leaving her to deteriorate to a wasteland due to erossion.  Stop being stupid idiots, and start being ingenious.

joseph yechout
joseph yechout

@Tom Mengel   Give Obmer and his gang  more

time and they will,,,  stop  the use of coal altogether.   The left  hates  carbon based energies.


Jeanetta Leedy
Jeanetta Leedy

Yeah its estimated to run out in around 500 years, and not everyone relies on there husbands to feed them, Most people like myself are in college.. and I agree some company's do not seem to care to much, but there has been a lot of change! my husbands job is very strict about there safety. And I sure hope he doesn't get killed, but he works everyday to provide for our family. unlike about 1/2 of the US that just set on there behinds getting checks and food stamps.

James Rademacher
James Rademacher

@Cobra Choppergirl @Jeanetta Leedy , Where do you think they get the raw materials for factories and the energy for power plants  to "like build stuff"?  Mines like these provide iron ore, copper, and other metals that are required to build helicopters like in your pic. Where do you think they got the petrol fuel for that heli? They pulled it out of the ground to feed refineries. 

Jeanetta Leedy
Jeanetta Leedy

@Cobra Choppergirl @Jeanetta Leedy we are far from "Stupid Idiots" have you ever even been to this area? Who would we sale these things to? we could grow all kinds of things but no one would buy them because no one would have a job to buy them! Like my comment above they do not just leave the strip bare when they are finished, they plant trees, grasses etc. and reclaim the once stripped land.

Bettina Monique
Bettina Monique

@joseph yechout @Tom Mengel NO the left doesn't hate.  The left looks toward the future when there is no more coal because it's all been removed, and is trying to implement new solutions for when that time comes so you will have a job, since you relied on coal your whole life and won't have one.

John Gensheimer
John Gensheimer

There is no doubt that oil and coal are part of what makes modern living possible. Although there are a lot of problems with coal, no one thinks we can realistically quit using it cold turkey. But this shameful practice of MTR, this method of extracting coal, causes more harm than good.   @Jeanetta Leedy @James Rademacher 

Jeanetta Leedy
Jeanetta Leedy

@James Rademacher Yea< you don't see them complaining about using electricity, or driving on ASPHAULT roads. And what about the mountains and landscapes that were stripped just to put in more public road ways and 4lanes? they don't complain about the millions of landfills on this planet, eventually we are going to run out of places to put the garbage. Australia and many other places mine, why are all the harsh remarks casted this way? Most people don't even know what coal is used for: alumina refineries, paper manufacturers, and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Several chemical products can be produced from the by-products of coal. Refined coal tar is used in the manufacture of chemicals, such as creosote oil, naphthalene, phenol, and benzene. Ammonia gas recovered from coke ovens is used to manufacture ammonia salts, nitric acid and agricultural fertilisers. Thousands of different products have coal or coal by-products as components: soap, aspirins, solvents, dyes, plastics and fibres, such as rayon and nylon.

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