Digging Into a Coal Controversy
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
How One Woman and Her Community Won Justice From Big Coal
By Penny Loeb
Univ. Press of Kentucky. 306 pp. $27.95
On Feb. 26, 1999 -- the 27th anniversary of a mining disaster that killed 125 people near Buffalo Creek, W.Va. -- a federal district judge named Charles H. Haden II embarked on an aerial tour of West Virginia's southern coalfields. The jurist, a Gerald Ford appointee and avid bird-watcher, presided over a lawsuit challenging so-called mountaintop removal, a form of strip mining that obliterates mountain summits to expose the coal beneath them, burying valleys and streams below in rubble.
Two hours later, after viewing the devastation from above, the judge said to his clerks: "What were they [the coal-industry lawyers] ever thinking to take me up there?"
Penny Loeb's new book, "Moving Mountains," recounts the history of that lawsuit, Bragg v. Robertson, which claimed that mountaintop removal violated the Clean Water Act by dumping mine waste into nearby streams. Ultimately, Haden ruled in the plaintiffs' favor, citing, in part, evidence he observed from the air. For a brief interlude, his sweeping decision threatened to curtail the practice nationwide.
Loeb is not the first author drawn to mountaintop removal. Erik Reece chronicled the impact of a similar practice on a Kentucky slope in his book "Lost Mountain." But Loeb, a former Newsday investigative reporter and editor for U.S. News & World Report, focuses primarily on residents of the affected communities, including those who joined the litigation as plaintiffs: housewives who battled dust, cave-ins and errant boulders from the above-ground blasting; retirees who grew up hunting and fishing near their mountain homes, only to watch the wooded hollows disappear. The named plaintiff, Patricia Bragg, first launched into activism when underground mining drained a neighbor's well; later, operators sought to gouge out the mountains surrounding her home.
Loeb devoted nine years to this insightful portrait of the contemporary coal industry, and her text resonates with telling details, the reward for her dedication and patience. She writes, for example, that only one of the plaintiffs' three trial attorneys -- a law professor -- had any in-court experience when he and his colleagues squared off against the coal industry, with its battalion of high-priced legal talent. One member of the plaintiffs' team, a public-interest lawyer who specialized in appellate briefs, had never taken a deposition; another had logged only three days on his first job as a lawyer when a magazine photograph of mountaintop removal landed on his desk. Not surprisingly, the courtroom scenes number among the book's strongest.
Loeb, however, tends toward over-inclusiveness, cluttering her text with secondary characters and subplots that sap the narrative's energy and momentum. A chronological retelling of events, rather than her chapter-by-chapter focus on different characters, would have lent the book a more engaging structure, helping the reader sort through sometimes difficult technical material.
And, in spite of the subtitle, the Bragg story -- like so many about the Appalachian coalfields and their residents -- does not neatly yield a sense of justice won. Indeed, Haden's decision was overturned on appeal. Nevertheless, Loeb appends a lengthy coda about the effect of the original ruling, including an upswing in litigation against coal companies. "The battle for equality with coal may well continue," she writes. "But the scales are tipping toward balance."
It is too soon to know whether such optimism is well founded. Recent events -- from the fate of six Utah miners entombed last month to the Bush administration's proposal to legalize mountaintop removal, warding off further challenges -- do not inspire confidence. The coal industry has demonstrated again and again, in West Virginia and elsewhere, its ability to persevere and prosper, often with the cooperation of the workers whose landscape it despoils. After Haden's decision, miners converged on the state Capitol in Charleston, rallying to protect their jobs. Early in the lawsuit, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers had calibrated the odds against prevailing over big coal.
"We won the battle," he said. "We'll lose the war."