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Coal Country
Page 4

Early most mornings I had biscuits and sausage gravy, eggs, home fries, and baked apple with sugar and cinnamon at Grandad's. One morning I met the cook, Patty McGinnis. Knowing her dad was Glenn Cornette, I asked her if she thought he would talk to me, and she said she'd see. The next day as she was getting off shift she handed me his phone number written on a slip from her order pad.

Photo of Glen Cornette Glenn Cornette's trailer, a double-wide, is on a lane called Glenn. It branches off Coldwater Road, crosses the creek on a one-lane bridge, and ends in his front yard. He met me at the door. He was wearing a hunter-orange baseball cap, glasses, an unzipped sweatshirt, a pullover shirt in a woodland camo pattern, narrow-leg blue jeans, and hunting boots. His round face and eyes inclined upwards inquisitively. We talked in his living room while litigants on a court TV show playing in the background quarreled with each other, to the rebukes of a TV judge.

Glenn Cornette told me he was born on this farm and grew up here, like his father before him. The farm belonged to his grandfather back in the late 1800s. He figures his family has been here at least a hundred and ten years. Cornette served in the army and worked for a while in Ohio. The rest of his sixty-seven years were spent on the farm. For much of his working life he operated strip-mining machines for the Martique Coal Company and the Island Creek Coal Company, and he helped strip the land where the prison and the airport are. Some years ago he retired with a disability. Now he hunts, fishes, does occasional odd jobs. Every summer he used to garden, and he had tomatoes and turnips ready to harvest when the spill destroyed them. He hasn't planted a garden since. His doctor has told him that because of the risk of contamination, he should not eat anything grown on his land.

His grandfather raised twenty-four children on the farm's 8-plus acres. His father raised two, and Glenn raised six. The farm's creek-valley topsoil produced fruits and vegetables that won prizes at the county fair. The soil had hardly a rock in it; but after the spill and the cleanup, the replacement dirt supplied by the coal company was all rocks and clay left over from strip mining, compressed to an impervious hardness by cleanup vehicles. "The company promised it would put back all the topsoil," he said, "but that was only at first -- they quit sayin' that later. At first they promised me everything in the world, and they lied every time they opened their mouths. Topsoil's too expensive for 'em, I guess. If they'd even fix me about an acre, so I could have me a little garden. The EPA let 'em get by with everything, too. I was tellin' an EPA man out here one time how my land was ruined, and he said that wasn't their responsibility. He said all they was worried about was cleanin' up that little creek." Cornette is among the plaintiffs who recently settled their damage suit against Martin County Coal.

Photo of slurry Cornette showed me a photo of his neighbors' yard where the slurry had come up to the height of their basketball backboard. I asked him to tell me what the slurry was like, and he said, "You want to see some? There's still plenty left." We put on our coats against the cold drizzle and he led me across the yard to some dead trees by the bank of the creek. With a narrow shovel he poked around the roots, and I saw thick black clumps of slurry everywhere. It had hardened somewhat from its original thick-shake consistency. He cut a slice and offered it to me on the shovel blade. I broke off a piece and held it in my hand. It was a dense, black, processed mass, unmistakably industrial and perfectly useless, or worse than useless. It was, in a way, a remarkable achievement. Impressed to have encountered the stuff at last, I took a small sample in a convenience-store plastic bag.

"People from the company have come to the house twice now, offering to buy my property," Cornette said. "They ask me how much I want for it. I tell 'em it's hard to put a price on something that ain't even for sale. If I sold, I'd just have to go buy another place somewhere, and I'd never be satisfied for the rest of my life."

He leaned on his shovel; when he shifted his weight, the end of the blade made a light crunching on the ground. Rain fell, the water in the creek gurgled. Stray white clouds moved up the valley, flying low like barnstorming pilots. On the hill opposite, the bare trees were misty and gray in the rain. We stood there for a while, breathing vapor and looking at the view. As the day darkened toward a late-fall twilight, that pretty corner of Kentucky was its old self again.

In West Virginia, the state has erected historical markers at places of importance in the life of Daniel Boone, the frontiersman who came to these mountains over 200 years ago. At the site of the Buffalo Creek disaster, there is a small memorial to the dead, but no historical marker tells what happens there on February 26, 1972, or explains how it did, or why. Similarly, there's no marker in the valleys of Wolf Creek or Coldwater Creek describing the slurry spill of 2000. A passerby might not even notice the weird green along the creek banks if he hadn't heard about the spill already. The omission in both instances probably results from the pain of the memory. Concern for the feelings of the coal industry might figure in as well. Another reason, certainly, is that the history in which both events participated is still ongoing. Unlike the life of Daniel Boone, the story of coal-mine waste in Appalachia is not yet finished, and we won't know for a long time how it turns out.

Reports I've read say that there are seven hundred waste impoundments like the one that leaked in 2000 scattered throughout the mining regions. Other sources put the number at a thousand or more. An MSHA report listed thirty impoundments in eastern Kentucky, nine of which were rated a high risk for breakthrough. One of these, the Holty Branch impoundment, is near the town of Pilgrim, just up the road from Inez. Given the geography of Appalachia, most or all of the impoundments are in hill country -- each of them set, as Kentucky writer Harry Caudill said of the impoundment at Buffalo Creek, "like a pool of gravy in a mound of mashed potatoes." And given the persistence of gravity, it would be wishful to think that all of them are going to remain intact and all the waste permanently contained.

No doubt the events leading up to the next spill will have the same sleepwalking-off-a-cliff quality that characterized the sequence of warnings and mistakes and evasions preceding catastrophic spills in the past. And in the vacuum of our assumed powerlessness, we'll see again a great and sudden growth of the alleged power of God. Routinely disregarded in most of our business doings, God suddenly acquires the leading role when things go hugely wrong: Just as the Pittston Corporation called the Buffalo Creek disaster "an act of God," lawyers for Massey Coal planned a similar defense against the suits resulting from the spill of 2000. By the "act of God" defense, no company or individual was ultimately responsible, no skill or science could have affected what occurred. God, the ruler both of nature and of human nature, caused it all.

Several Appalachian groups are working on the environmental problems of coal mining. The Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, based in Lewisburg, West Virginia, brought two lawsuits over mountaintop removal mining that nearly shut the practice down. Other organizations include Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

NRDC has been working for thirty years to reduce U.S. coal use and the environmental destruction caused by coal mining. The website carries frequent action alerts on coal issues and on the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, two of the most critical laws for dealing with these problems. -- The Editors

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This article was made possible by NRDC's Josephine Patterson Albright Fund.

Photos: Jeff Rogers

OnEarth. Spring 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council