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.
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."