Review of Coal River: The serious battle against mountaintop removal mining

I have ridden the snake-like road of I-64/77 through southern West Virginia at least twice a year since I was  a girl and grew up in awe of the ancient Appalachian Mountains. But a few years ago, I noticed my first mountaintop removal site just off the highway between the valley of two other mountains. Its bleak look, desert tan in high elevation, was shocking in contrast to its green counterparts.

Michael Shnayerson recounts a similar situation in his book, Coal River: How a few brave Americans took on a powerful company—and the federal government—to save the land they love (2008). Shnayerson’s principal character, Joe Lovett, noticed similar sights as he drove along the same road also known as the West Virginia Turnpike. Lovett is a West Virginia environmental lawyer who has been working on stopping mountaintop removal mining years before I noticed anything.

The book concentrates on Lovett’s representation of local activists and their lawsuits to stop mountaintop removal. The suits were mainly brought against the Army Corps of Engineers, the coal company, Massey Energy, and its CEO and political big-spender Don Blankenship.

Coal River’s literary tradition comes from other legal nonfiction such as Jonathon Harr’s book, A Civil Action (1995), and the 2000 movie, Erin Brockovich. (But this book does lack the fun use of feminine wiles). Water polluting is a major factor in all of these stories, including Coal River.

Lovett’s main legal argument is that, beside the loss of America’s “mother forest,” mountaintop removal permanently obliterates waterways with debris and dangerous contaminants, making the process a dire short-term solution with irreversible consequences.

While Lovett makes a sturdy case against mountaintop removal mining, Shanyerson is heavy-handed in his retelling, never attempting to provide a decent case for the other side. His heroes are portrayed as faultless angels; his villains as close cousins to Skeletor.

But once I was able to accept the author’s bias, I found Coal River a satisfying read even with the need to supplement the knowledge. It is a relevant book about what is happening now in terms of energy production, corporate responsibility, mine safety, environmental law, and state and federal politics–a complex policy issue not just for West Virginia but for the nation.

To provide more information mountaintop removal mining, here are some additional links:

  • Check out Google Maps to see mountaintop removal mining sites in West Virginia. Type in “Kayford Mountain WV” to see a large site. Make sure the “satellite” button in turned on.
  • A CBS 60 Minutes interview with former national mining regulator, Jack Spardaro, about a coal slurry spill in Eastern Kentucky and alleged cover-up.
  • A Google News feed about mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia
  • Michael Shnayerson’s original article for Vanity Fair in 2006, “The Rape of Appalachia.”
  • ABC’s Nightline April 2008 investigation of Don Blankenship and his relationships with West Virginia state officials:

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