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Mining Town Rises in Anger

More coal-fired power plants have been announced in the last 12 months than in the previous 12 years, according to the National Mining Association. There is even a labor shortage.

But in the valleys of southwestern Virginia, resistance to surface mining has been building as residents say their lives have grown unbearable.

Ramey last year moved away from his house of 37 years, believing that the blasting required in surface mining was sending rocks flying into his yard. Dorothy Taulbee quit sitting on her porch and hanging clothes out to dry because of dust from coal hauling trucks that speed by her house. Since Jeremy Davidson's death, Mary Crow Pace considers it too dangerous for her great-grandson to visit.

"It's been horrible," said Pace, who lives nearby. "The blasting caused so much shaking and rocking when I was standing in the bathroom the other day. If I hadn't been holding on to the basin, I believe I would have fallen over. I've been here 77 years, and I haven't seen anything like this. It ain't no fun living here anymore. It's a scary place."

Last spring, a rock the size of a basketball tumbled down the mountain and hit the house of Carlene Stout, the Davidsons' next-door neighbor. "I'd like to see them buy all of us out if they're going to do their mining stuff, or quit tearing everything up," Stout said as she stood near the yellow police tape that still surrounds the Davidsons' property.

Many residents said they were not surprised that someone was killed, though they never imagined it would be a sleeping child.

Over the last three years, Wesley Lawson and his grandmother have filed dozens of complaints with the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy about surface mining near their home in the Wise County town of Coeburn. In one complaint made in March 2003, a state inspector reported that Lawson said "something had to be done or someone was going to get killed."

Using seismographs and blasting logs, the agency's investigators, however, have found little evidence that the blasting has caused most of the damage or posed the level of danger that most residents believe it has. The companies almost always operated well within the legal blasting limits.

Asked why surface mining is permitted near residential neighborhoods, agency spokesman Mike Abbott replied, "Because state and federal laws allow it." He cited laws prohibiting surface mining within 300 feet of an occupied dwelling and within 100 feet of a public road.

In the five years they lived beside Black Mountain, the Davidsons had never complained of problems.

The only danger they warned their sons about was the speeding trucks.

On Aug. 19, Dennis Davidson, 38, came home from his job as an inventory clerk and played ball with his sons. Cindy Davidson, 32, who works at a day-care center, prepared supper. Jeremy fell asleep on his mother's lap, and she tucked him into bed.

According to a report by the state mining agency, A&G Coal Corp. employees on the evening shift were widening a road to handle 18-wheel coal hauling trucks at a mine called Strip Number 13.

About 2:30 a.m., a bulldozer operator pushed topsoil toward the outside berm. Seated behind a large blade with only the bulldozer lights to guide him, he did not realize rocks had been pushed over the mountainside, covering a half-acre.

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