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Moving Mountains

An expose of a mining practice that reduces mountains to rubble.

A West Virginia mountaintop denuded by coal mining.
A West Virginia mountaintop denuded by coal mining. (Melissa Farlow - National Geographic/getty Images)
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Reviewed by Gary Krist
Sunday, February 10, 2008; Page BW07

COAL RIVER

By Michael Shnayerson

Farrar Straus Giroux. 321 pp. $25

Type "Boone County WV" into Google Earth's search engine, and the image that appears on your computer screen is sobering: The rich green expanse of the central Appalachian Mountains -- one of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet -- is now pocked by numerous gray splotches that resemble nothing so much as bird droppings on a billiard table. It's not a pretty sight. And it's a sight that could become even uglier if, as Michael Shnayerson points out in his alarming new book, a few mining companies and their government enablers have their way.

Coal mining, of course, has been a vital part of West Virginia's heritage for as long as anyone can remember. Only in recent decades, however, have the big coal companies begun turning away from traditional underground mines to focus on a new and cheaper way of getting at the state's signature natural resource. Mountaintop removal (or "mountaintop mining," as it's known to euphemists) is a brute-force extraction method that involves blasting away entire mountain ridges, scraping up the exposed coal veins, and then dumping the debris into a nearby valley. What's left afterward is a convenient flat place in the mountains for a golf course or a shopping mall.

Shnayerson, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, takes on this environmental outrage with the muckraking zeal of a latter-day Upton Sinclair or Ida Tarbell. Focusing his narrative on what he considers the industry's worst offender -- Massey Energy, the "biggest, most aggressive, and most hated of the coal companies" in the region -- he shows how a very powerful corporation uses money and influence to ride roughshod over hard-won environmental laws. He also demonstrates how easily Big Coal has been able to manipulate government agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, turning those charged with conserving the landscape into accomplices in its destruction.

But Shnayerson's story has its heroes, too -- namely, the "few brave Americans," the "ragtag band" of average men and women who fight "to save the land they love." I'm generally suspicious when nonfiction narratives fit too easily into the stark moral schemas of Hollywood screenplays, and, as these descriptions indicate, there are times when Coal River seems just a little too black-and-white to be true. The book's principal good guy, for instance -- lawyer Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment -- is depicted as the kind of earnest but quirky and appealing underdog who might once have been played by Kevin Costner. Working long hours for little money, Lovett (described as having "clean good looks" and a "lean, athletic build") pauses in his legal battles only long enough to check on his beloved apple orchard or play baseball with his charming young sons.

The story's villain, meanwhile, seems to have arrived straight from Central Casting, Black Hat Division. Don Blankenship, Massey's CEO, comes off as the coal industry's answer to Attila the Hun, ruthlessly breaking unions, abusing employees and pursuing profitability with no regard for fair play or the safety of small children. Blankenship, according to Shnayerson, has a "soft, doughy face with watery eyes, a meager mustache, and a weak chin." Oh, and don't overlook his lizardlike tongue that darts in and out as he speaks, "as if he were on a quite unconscious surveillance for tasty gnats."

As accurate as these descriptions may in fact be, Shnayerson doesn't have to try so hard to ensure that our sympathies are correctly placed. As his reporting amply shows, mountaintop removal is a pernicious practice -- environmentally wanton, culturally disruptive and dangerous to miners and residents alike. Lovett and the other profiled activists (whether or not they strap on shining armor in the course of their efforts) are doubtless working on the side of the angels. And although there are some West Virginians who argue that the high-minded crusade may put many real-life miners out of work, Shnayerson is persuasive when he notes that mountaintop mining produces far fewer jobs than underground mining does, and that the jobs it does create tend to be lower-paying and non-union.

Unfortunately for the storyline of Coal River, most of the legal battles it describes remain unresolved by the book's last pages, leaving readers with little sense of closure at the end. But what hurts the book as a narrative may help it as an expos┬┐. With so many cases pending before appeals courts, there is still time for the public to become involved in the battle against mountaintop mining -- with their votes if not with their money and time. Coal River, like the muckraking classics it emulates, may end up being most valuable as a call to arms. *

Gary Krist's most recent book is "The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche."


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