I have been working on stories about resource extraction in West Virginia since November. One of my first interviews in the Coal River Valley was with Junior Walk. During the interview he called West Virginia, “A resource colony that powers the rest of the country.” As I spent more time in the region and saw the impacts of the coal industry on communities and environment, I found that Junior’s words resonated more clearly.
Below are a set of images captured on the ground and in the air of Mountaintop Removal in Southern West Virginia and of the Brushy Fork Impoundment, (the captions below explain more details about specific sites.)
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining that involves the mining of the summit ridge of a mountain. In Appalachia more than 500 mountains have been severely impacted or destroyed by this process. During the beginning stages of mountaintop removal, all topsoil and vegetation is removed. Trees are often not used commercially, but are burned and dumped into valley fills. The first six images show the process of deforestation and piles of trees being burned in the landscape.
The image above is of a valley fill in Boone County, West Virginia. During the process of MTR excess rock and soil is disposed into nearby valleys. It was estimated by the EPA that valley fills are responsible for burying and polluting thousands of miles of vital Appalachian headwater streams.
The image above is of the Brushy Fork Slurry Impoundment which is only a few miles from the towns of Whitesville and Sylvester. Coal slurry is the substance left over after the process of “cleaning coal.” Before coal is burned in a power plant it is taken to a coal preparation plant where it is washed with chemicals prior to shipping the coal to market. In January, MCHM, a chemical that is used in the process of cleaning coal, spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, polluting the drinking water of over 300,000 people.
In Shirley L. Stewart Burns book “Bringing Down the Mountains” she references various sources that state the impoundment,”owned by Massey Energy, is 900 feet high and will hold 8.168 billion gallons of slurry once it is completed.” The impoundment currently holds 7.8 billon gallons of toxic sludge and is the largest earthen dam in the United States. A quick look at google map shows that there are hundreds of slurry impoundments throughout the state of West Virginia.
The image above shows a small island of land surrounded by mountaintop removal mining. Hidden under the trees on this patch of land is the Jarrell Family Cemetery where generations of families from Appalachia are buried. The mining site surrounding the cemetery is called the Twilight Surface Mine. It was once owned by Massey Energy and is now owned by Alpha Natural Resources
Currently, I am working on a series of short films about how the coal and natural gas industries are affecting communities and the environment throughout the state. Ultimately the goal of these films is to help the public understand the true cost of coal and our dependence on fossil fuels. Check back to see updates about the project and the films.
A special thanks to South Wings for helping me get access to photograph the above images.