The first time I was on Cherry Pond it was ramp season, and I joined Judy, Bo, Larry and Ed for the much anticipated spring ritual, in which the tasty wild onions are harvested and cooked in butter with potatoes. It was a steep hike through rugged country, and from the ridge you could see Coal River Mountain, the highest peak around, all the way up to Kayford Mountain, which is no more. Kayford Mountain is now a huge pit, where bulldozers, trucks and dynamite can be heard for miles around.
Larry Gibson, one of the most vocal opponents of mountain top removal coal mining, used to look up at Kayford Mountain and thank god that he was lucky enough to live in West Virginia. Now, on must be careful when looking the top of a high wall; a man-made cliff that is perfectly vertical.
Larry lives on the top of the cliff and Kayford Mountain is two hundred feet below Larry’s House. His property line is at Kayford Mountain by default. Larry refused to sell out to the coal companies and has been fighting mountain top removal for the last twenty years of his life. Thousands of people have come to Larry’s to see how coal is really mined, and few are prepared for the site they will see when they peer over that high wall.
If you drive a few miles north of my house on Highway 3, you can look up Clay’s Branch, the creek that leads to Cherry Pond. It is famous among turkey hunters, mushroom hunters, ginseng pickers and bird watchers. The people who live along Clay’s Branch are used to people driving by their houses, some of which sit so close to the road that they could hand you a beer as you drove by without getting off their porches. This is because the holler is steep, and what little land is flat enough to put a house on is usually right near the road by the creek. You can still see Clay’s Branch today if you drive by, but you won’t see Cherry Pond Mountain.
Cherry Pond is gone.
Last Thursday the US Fourth Circuit Court ruled that Massey Energy and every other mine owner in West Virginia does not have to obey any environmental laws when they dig for coal. That’s right, any of the laws, like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act or the Endangered Species Act. The coal companies are getting away with murder and the court turned the fate of the Appalachian Mountains, the oldest on Earth, to the Army Corps of Engineers and the wholly coal owned West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, an agency that has never denied a mining permit and dose not regulate the permits when they sign off on them.
On a Friday a couple of weeks ago, Massey Energy blew the top off of Cherry Pond Mountain.
Like a Navel gun salute Massey signaled there approval of the coal owned Federal Court’s decision by drilling a few hundred holes, inserting nitrates and filling them with diesel fuel, and setting off the loudest explosion that anyone has around herd around here before. A large boulder was sent air borne, flew off of the ridge and continued to roll, Johnny Cake-like, sticking to the road, even making the tight curves, and stopped a few hundred feet from Kenny’s place, which is the last house on the road. Dust from the blast, silica mixed with chemicals and fuel oil, blanketed his vegetable garden. One window in his house was shattered by the force of the explosion.
On Saturday, James “Guin” McGuinn took me to Clay’s Branch so we observe for ourselves what had happened. You could see the wreckage of the mountain even before you got off of Highway 3. High above Clay’s branch, the ridge top is being lowered, and the mountain is disappearing. How much of this is enough?
On Monday Guinn and I got two lengths of chain and two locks, painted a banner and marched up the mountain. They knew we were coming because we had posted a press release on the Climate Ground Zero website before leaving the house. We were accompanied by two photographers, who followed us into the mine area. We climbed onto the site and were immediately spotted by the Massey Security guards who spoke to us over their bullhorn. We walked straight towards the drilling rig that was preparing for another blast. Directly to our right a truck was hauling the stones that had for millions of years had been lodged at the top of the mountain. We turned and approached it. The big truck continued forward as we walked up the step road and we essentially had it bottled up, unable to proceed any further without running us over. It stopped. It backed up. The two excavators were now idle, unable to load another truck. About thirty minutes went by and we observed that to our left several trucks holding the explosives went down the mountain and the drilling was halted.
An hour went by and the Massey security trucks still waited about a hundred yards away. Above us the truck once again approached our position. We stood our ground and raised our hands. Stop. He once again continued forward, perhaps thinking we would step aside and he would run over our banner, which we had spread across the road. It read: “Wind Mills Not Toxic Spills”. The truck came closer.
Then it stopped.
After a few more minutes passed, a West Virginia State Trooper, Sgt. Michael Smith appeared on the scene. We had met before, last week, when seven of us, including Guin, had chained ourselves to the excavators not far from here. We had time to talk as he had driven us, without handcuffs, to the State Police station that sits at the end of Marsh Fork, and at the entrance to the mine. He knew why we were here.
“When I got the call, I knew it was you guys. I read your press release on the Climate Ground Zero website. Do you ever do these when it’s not cold and snowing?” he said. “Get in the truck”. We rode down the mountain again with Sgt. Smith. He told us about his new granddaughter. “I understand what you’re doing. You know you’re up against big money.” It wasn’t a question.
There was no blasting on Cherry Mountain that day. There was on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Today is Sunday and they don’t work. If nothing is done, they will blast on Monday. Isn’t it time to stop this insanity? If two burned out old hippies can stop the blasting on one mountain for one day, what would happen if thousands of people did the same? That wasn’t really a question either because I already know the answer. They could stop it.
For more information visit Coal River Mountain Watch.
MIKE ROSELLE lives in Rock Creek, West Virginia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org