PINEVILLE, W.VA. -- The college girls who file in for night classes sport varsity jackets and wear their boyfriends' high school rings, fitted with adhesive tape, around their middle fingers. Most of the time David Corcoran, their philosophy teacher, talks about the benefits of pursuing truth. Tonight he is talking about the benefits of pursuing a nuclear waste repository. His passion suggests these quests are comparable, if not synonymous.

"For 100 years, 103 years, our area has been exploited," Corcoran tells the class. "And this looks like it is going to be the first industry that we get that does not exploit because it is federal."

For the past eight months, Corcoran, publisher of The Welch Daily News, has headed the campaign to bring a high-level nuclear waste storage facility to either McDowell or adjoining Wyoming County. It is a distinction that citizens of other states have organized to avoid. But southern West Virginia is sliding down the slope of a potentially bottomless depression. After a century as the sole engine of this area's economy, the coal industry is pulling out, leaving a devastated community behind.

"I don't want us to become a ghost town if we don't have to," Corcoran says.

So, night after night, he preaches the good nukes. Rotaries. Town councils. PTAs. Corcoran has addressed them all. Tonight 35 students at Southern West Virginia Community College constitute his audience. They ask few questions and take few notes, but apparently they leave converted.

Folks who don't feel so warmly about nuclear waste are flabbergasted by the irony of Corcoran's efforts. After a century of having their land ravaged by energy companies, they ask, can their only salvation be a ravishing that, potentially, could last forever?

"Who's on the task force?" a young man asks him.

"The task force is mainly me," Corcoran says. "I'm the chairman." He looks around the room. "I wouldn't be sticking my neck out if I wasn't working for out-of-work people."

The door handle on the driver's side of his pickup is broken, so Jeff Hazzard opens the passenger's side, stretches across the seat, pops the other door open and walks back around the cab. He is an out-of-work person, has been for three years since he lost his job with the Cannelton Coal Co. His twin brother Jerry works for USX, digging coal at its Pineville mine.

Jeff has lived in the coal fields for 50 of his 52 years, seen boom as well as bust. He's been a welder, worked the mines, hauled coal and tried a handful of odd jobs. Now he's learning to deal with the inescapability of unemployment in McDowell County, where every third person is looking for a job. This morning he is heading for a union meeting in Welch, the county seat. The landscape he moves through seems a little less vital than he remembers it.

The brick shells of company stores stand in various stages of disintegration along Rte. 52 . The gray stone crosses in small family cemeteries are made almost invisible by bountiful weeds. It is always worse after a rain when steam rises from the roofs of roadside cabins and it seems as though the buildings are vaporizing. A group of old men sit in front of the union local in Maybeury. Hazzard sees them when he drives out most mornings and he sees them when he drives back most nights.

Downshifting, he takes the curve into Welch. The city looks like the back end of a bigger town set down in the hollow. Whoever designed these five- and six-story buildings just handed the workers bricks and told them to stop now and then for windows. In 1975, 10,000 people lived here, but today the population has fallen to 3,300. There aren't any men's stores left. J.C. Penney's has pulled out, too. So have Kroger's and Pizza Inn. People were pretty embarrassed that their town couldn't support a Pizza Inn.

In front of the Super 10, Jeff spots two of his nieces and pulls over to find out what time Jerry got home from the mine. If his twin sleeps all afternoon, they won't get a chance to go squirrel hunting until after dinner. And hunting is as good an excuse as any for walking in the woods.

His love of the woods is what set Jeff against the nuclear waste facility.

"If there was anything great to it, they wouldn't offer it to none of us out here," he says. "It's like pouring sulfuric acid in your well. Sure it's jobs, but what we have here is a way of life."

The plant that David Corcoran covets and Jeff Hazzard fears is known as the Monitored Retrievable Storage facility (MRS). The decision on where and whether to build this above-ground, temporary storage site will be made by Congress.

The House is currently working on a bill that does not include an MRS, but the Senate has already passed one that does. The future of southern West Virginia may be decided in a conference committee.

The federal government is bound by law to accept spent fuel rods from the nation's 107 nuclear reactors by 1998. Those rods are currently stored at the reactor sites, which is where opponents of the MRS think they should stay.

"There's never been a high-level nuclear waste dump," says Andrew Maier, a spokesman for Save Our Mountains, an environmental group based in Hinton, a two-hour drive from McDowell County. "This is untested technology. There's just no telling what will happen."

But proponents of the plant say it would give the nation a more flexible nuclear waste disposal policy. "The MRS is about as safe and innocuous a facility as could be constructed anywhere," says Paul Childress, a nuclear engineer with Babcock and Wilcox, which would build the casks used to store the fuel rods. "If it were nothing but engineering criteria it could be operated in downtown Manhattan. I have tens of cousins working in coal mines. I'd much rather have them working in a plant like this."

The plant would undoubtedly be an economic boon to McDowell County. The area's infrastructure is archaic. Most sewage is dumped, untreated, into local creeks. The new plant would mean widened roads, new sewers and improved medical emergency facilities.

It would generate about 1,500 construction jobs and take nearly a decade to complete. The plant would employ roughly 700 people, and Corcoran figures there would be at least another 1,000 jobs in support industries. Further, the federal government would award the state a $50 million bonus for accepting the plant, $20 million each year the plant is under construction and $50 million each of the 50 years it is expected to be in use. By law, one-third of that money would be directed to the county.

The centerpiece of the plan is a 1,000-acre facility to which spent radioactive fuel rods would be shipped in steel-and-concrete casks. At the plant these casks would be opened and the rods "consolidated" into larger casks. These 22-foot-tall casks would be stored on a pad in a secured area of the plant, in the open air.

The morning after his night school presentation, David Corcoran is hustling through the offices of The Welch Daily News.

"Welcome to my nuclear disaster area," he says. There are books and papers piled on the desk top, the couch and most of the chairs.

Corcoran is a breathing stereotype, the busy small-town editor, doing three things at once and feeling guilty that he is not doing four. His newspaper's circulation has fallen from 10,500 to 8,700 in the last year. To offset the losses he's started smaller papers in the outlying towns, but still he feels as though he is not bailing fast enough.

The problem, he says, is that in the past two years what used to be cyclical unemployment has become structural unemployment: "When these companies started shutting down mines they said, 'Look, we're bringing in a transition team. We're paying a lot of bucks to have these people come in to tell you how to write up your re'sume's. And you move to New York or you move to Washington or you move to Atlanta. Don't stay. Don't stay because we're closed.' "

McDowell County had 13,000 working residents in 1978, he says, and has fewer than 7,000 today.

"All our friends are leaving for North and South Carolina and then like the birds of Capistrano coming back at Thanksgiving," Corcoran says. "There's so many South Carolina license plates here that on holidays when you wake up you think you're in Myrtle Beach."

The social costs of economic dislocation became evident quickly. Researchers from Harvard University found widespread malnutrition. Enrollment in free breakfast programs increased tenfold. At Welch General Hospital, 80 percent of the caseload is now indigent care.

That people need jobs is obvious enough, Corcoran says, but the local work force is not particularly attractive. Of 3,000 people seeking help from local job services, 700 have finished high school and 13 have finished college.

Local economic development experts would like to see the miners take matters into their own hands, but that isn't likely. McDowell is the most corporately held county in Appalachia. Three-quarters of its land belongs to energy companies. Consequently, there is little opportunity to diversify.

So Corcoran has placed his faith in the MRS. "The other side always gives the 'What if' arguments," he says. " 'What if there is a wreck? What if all of southern West Virginia is contaminated?' I say, 'What if we just sit here and do nothing about the 6,000 people who are out of jobs?'

"I dream about this stuff at night," he says. "And I was a person who never dreamed. I may be wrong, but I feel like I am promoting a project that is really the only attainable thing that we've got."

Along about 10 a.m. Buck Wade pulls up in front of the UMW's subdistrict office in Welch. He's driving a fat old Buick that none of the guys has ever seen before.

"Is that a new car?" Jeff Hazzard calls. He isn't serious.

"It's new to me," Wade says.

Wade is carrying the book that tells how much relief money the union has to allocate. He calls these meetings maybe four times a year and the guys come from all over the district to decide who gets what.

Everybody settles around an oval table in a room with no windows, except for the guys who are hoping for checks. They sit against the wall.

Donald Johnson and Robert Rippeth slouch in their chairs and the shoulders of their jackets bunch up around their ears. Both men are 40. Johnson's got three kids and Rippeth has one. The company just reopened their mine, but won't give them their jobs back. It says they're too old and too thick with the union leaders.

Luckily for them, Wade has decided to allocate the money based on how many mouths a man has to feed. Guys with families get top priority. Nobody gets much, and sometimes the single guys, like Jeff Hazzard, don't get anything at all.

The men in this room have been through hard times before. They know coal is a boom-and-bust industry; what they don't know is whether this is a stage in a cycle or the end of an era. "When I was in school, the main thing they taught was the three Rs," says Danny Surface, a member of the union's international executive board. "And it wasn't reading, writing and arithmetic. It was Route 75 to Detroit or Route 79 to Cleveland or Route 77 to someplace else."

Most of the men who mined coal in McDowell County have hit those roads. The rest are being urged to do so.

"When you go to sign up for welfare, the first question they put to you is, 'Why don't you relocate?' " Johnson says. Just about everybody in this room has asked himself that question at one time or another. Some stay for lack of options, some have family ties. Others fear poverty less than they fear a world without mountains and mountain people.

"I lived near Chicago for nine years," Johnson says. "It was a bigger rat race up there. Me and my wife both worked and when we came back all we had was a handful of receipts. I moved back down here and within three years working in the mines I had a new vehicle, new trailer and bought a lot to sit it on."

Now he can't sell the land or the trailer for even half of what it's worth. Fire insurance is unavailable in much of the county because sometimes the smartest economic move a guy can make is to burn down his house.

"The saying goes, you can take the boy out of the mountain," Rippeth says, "but you can't take the mountain out of the boy."

The men are passing around a photo album Johnson brought. It tells the story of the Bread of Life Outreach, a sort of backwoods Salvation Army that he and Rippeth set up in the old Island Creek offices near Bartley. Each month the Outreach feeds about 130 families, relying on private donations and government surplus.

"We give until we run out," Johnson says. "We always run out before the end of the month."

The miners know that they may be the last people to see any prosperity in these mountains, but they aren't too keen on any of these schemes to change that, particularly the MRS.

"When I heard the word of it it strikes fear within me," Buck Wade says. "A lot of people might think because you are desperate you just take anything out of desperation. But I don't believe that's necessarily so."

He is pulling on his jacket. "Gotta go mail the money to these guys," he says.

Dave Corcoran and J. Knox McConnell call each other Uncle Dave and Uncle Knox. They try to get together for lunch once a week or so and figure out ways to save the county. They are always a little sheepish about explaining to visitors that the Bonanza Steakhouse is the best spot in town.

Before Corcoran began his push for the MRS, the county supervisors were all for opening up the county as a giant landfill for big-city garbage. Neither of the men liked that idea. McConnell, who is president of the First National Bank of Keystone, is big in the George Bush campaign. He thinks that if West Virginia would help put his man in the White House, there might be an Army base in it.

McConnell's bank is flourishing, but largely because he's made the place attractive to a lot of Pittsburgh doctors who deposit substantial savings and get a break on their mortgages. Locally he does most of his business cashing welfare checks. He is becoming more comfortable with the notion of the MRS.

"I would be for it," he says, "subject to that we don't all glow in the dark because of it."

This gives Corcoran the opening for one of his favorite refrains. "I think if you look at the record of the nuclear industry and you look at the accidents and that sort of thing you see that not one person has been killed by radiation," he says.

Educating himself on the fine points of nuclear technology represents a radical change of plan for Corcoran, who came to Welch intent on exploring local Appalachian customs. "I wanted to get out there, back some of these hollows and find people who had actually retained some of the folkways, skills and talents that I saw in other areas of West Virginia," he says. "And when I sent the reporters out after a week, they came back and said, 'Dr. Corcoran, this is a subpocket of Appalachia. We've gone back these hollows and we can't find these traditional characteristics.' "

While the folkways disappeared, the coal companies brought in nothing to fill the cultural void. "They did not put museums in McDowell County," Corcoran says. "They did not put public libraries in McDowell County. They did not start zoos. As a result the quality of life here is very low. The standard of living is about the lowest you can get in all of America."

Jeff Hazzard pulls onto the shoulder of a road that has turned from pavement to dirt. The trees across the way have been methodically cut away and now half this small hillside is bare. On the slope men are busy felling more timber and hauling logs.

"Facing a mine," Jeff says.

Facing a mine means opening it up. These men have leased the rights to this land and the minerals beneath it. Theirs is a small operation, not likely to employ people outside of their immediate family. It is mining on such a small scale that the people who do it seem to have more in common with those who plant large gardens than those who work for the big coal companies.

Jeff's brother Sam keeps a garden. Farther up the same road, Jeff finds him on a level patch of ground near the crest of the mountain hacking at the ground with a hoe. The gray-brown patch is full of greens, turnip greens, collard greens and mustard greens. "This is my therapy," Sam says.

The eldest of the four Hazzard brothers, Sam was burned over about 20 percent of his body in a flying accident a few years ago. He was flying a Piper Cub, which began behaving badly almost as soon as he had it airborne. Sam landed safely, but the plane caught fire. As he leaped from the cockpit the flames engulfed him. The family thought he would die, but Sam fooled them. Now he farms this little patch of ground to help keep his skin grafts stretched. Scarred skin peeks from under his T-shirt on his neck and his left arm.

Sam says he likes the idea of the MRS because he is mechanically inclined. "It would bring high tech to no tech," he says. But he doesn't think it is the only answer to the county's economic woes. There's plenty of timber and coal, he says, but the railroads and trucking companies make it too difficult for small producers to move it.

"Our landscape is bountiful," he says, "but those are the things that kill us at the foot of the hill."

That is the lay of the land in these parts. Freedom at the top of the hill, trouble at the bottom. A little farther up the road sits the airport. It is nothing more than a slab of asphalt bordered by a few prefabricated hangars. Thistle and crickets dominate the runway. The place is deserted.

"When's the last time you heard it this quiet?" Jeff says. "This is what is great about living here. It is beautiful. The air is fresh. Things are available to you here."

When Jeff was a boy, the airport was the jewel of a huge unsupervised playground. They rode trail bikes in the hills, hunted and later even learned to fly. Losing his job has put him back in touch with those times.

"These last two years I have really learned to enjoy life," he says. "And I know more what real living is than I have in the last 15 or 20 years. It sounds somewhat elementary to say that. Well, I used to work a lot. And there were a whole lot of people I didn't get to see and friends I hadn't seen for a long time. Now I see people in sickness and in death.

"So life to me is really worth living and enjoying. You can enjoy life in so many different ways. But just wholesome living like this is what I call living. I'm thankful. Right now I'm down and out. I have nothing, but I'm happy. I feel blessed when I get up and look at myself in the mirror and say, 'Hey, here I am.' "

The dirt road winds two miles down the hillside before it empties onto Rte. 52. Jeff's truck stalls, as it often does. He is right in front of the old Starland Drive-In.

"We used to bring our dates here," Jeff says. "Sneak down that hill right there and just walk in at the intermission, get popcorn, whatever."

No one has done that for quite some time. On the sign that says "Playing Tonight" it reads: "16 acres. For sale." There is a number for a real estate agent named Betty Johnson. In the far corner of the lot stands a playground, swing sets and little ponies sitting on thick springs. The lot is filled with hundreds of posts that no longer hold speakers. The huge screen has faded to gray.

Whose woods these are one can't help but know. The coal industry has named everything in southern West Virginia. The towns are named for coal barons. Gary is named for Elbert Gary, one of the founders of U.S. Steel. So is Elbert. Filbert is named for his brother. Towns like Vivian and Ethel are named for financiers' wives and daughters. The towns that didn't get Christian names had to make do with the numbers of nearby mines. There's Number 13 Bottom, and Number 10 Pop Stop. Even the churches are numbered, as in Numbers Five and Six Holden Baptist Church.

After two years of research, the authors of the Appalachian Land Ownership Study concluded that poverty in these mountains had its roots in the high concentration of corporate land ownership. They advocated land reform as the only real solution to the area's problems and suggested that the state exercise eminent domain and return huge parcels of land to local residents.

"One hundred years later it {absentee ownership} is still the root of most evil," says John Gaventa, who directed the study. He feels the MRS is just another way to put the people of McDowell County at the mercy of forces they can't control.

"The reason they said they want to give it to us is our 'benign political climate,' " says Carol Osgood, of Save Our Mountains in Hinton. "In other words, they think we are dumb enough to take it."

Corcoran does not have much patience with people who say that the MRS would somehow automatically destroy West Virginians' relationship with their land. That relationship, he says, has been dead for decades.

"This coal field is over 100 years old," Corcoran says. "It was opened up in 1883. At that time we were a rural type community. But over the years the coal mining became the all-consuming industry, an occupation of the area. So many mines were being opened and so many people were needed, that it just didn't pay you to stay on the farm. It was much more lucrative to go into the mines."

Jeff stands on a porch dotted with potted plants and stuffed animals. His brother Jerry raised four girls and this is where their teddy bears have come to die. After pounding on the door for five minutes Jeff decides that his brother is sleeping and proposes going home for an early dinner.

The small red brick house where he lives with his mother and younger sister sits beside Rte. 52 in Kimball. His older sister Bertha and her husband live next door. They've got the phone, but there's a pipe running between the two houses so they can yell messages back and forth.

Jeff's father, Roosevelt Hazzard, brought the family to McDowell County from Richmond in 1937, figuring he could do better by them as a miner than as a night watchman. The family lived in Superior until three years ago. All of the kids grew up there. So when it came time to move, they hauled their one-story wood home along with them. It sits semi-steadily on cinder blocks in the side yard.

When she first came to West Virginia, Jeff's mother Susie feared that the hills were going to collapse on top of her. The only thing she's afraid of nowadays is frogs. It seems that Susie's mom got frightened by one while she was pregnant with Susie. "That's when the fear got into me," she says.

Susie raised eight children in the white house, six of them her own. The kids moved on to Detroit, Chicago and New York, but now all eight have returned and live within a mile. Susie's magnetism may have something to do with that. She gives every visitor a hug, a kiss and a hot meal.

Susie serves hog's neck to most of her guests. "I can eat any part of the pig except the squeal," she says. "And I can't catch that."

Thebrick house is filled with furniture and taxidermy. In the kitchen conversations collide as Susie fixes dinner. All the Hazzards are world-class monologuists. What the conversations have in common is the name of Roosevelt Hazzard. He has been dead 22 years, but his family speaks as though he had visited yesterday.

Rose Hazzard was a shortstop. He played in the old Negro Leagues with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. He was also a star in the local coal leagues. Jeff still has the clipping from the day his father made an unassisted triple play with his team ahead by one run in the bottom of the ninth.

Rose died in a coal mine in Jeff's arms. He had a black lung fit one day when the amount of oxygen in his mine suddenly dropped.

"One minute I was talking to him and then I walked away and somebody called me, flashed his helmet light and said, "Something's wrong with Rose." And I ran back up and he had slumped over into this coal car. I tried to give him the kiss of life, but I think that is when he drew his last breath."

Jeff wishes he knew then the safety techniques miners know now. But he doesn't brood on it.

"We're born to live and we live to die," he says. "And he went peacefully. The same with my grandfather. They lived good clean lives and that's what the Lord does for them. He lets them go quietly."

The truck bumps along a rutted road through the hills. Jeff and Jerry are trying to squeeze in a little squirrel hunting before dark.

"These used to be our playgrounds," Jeff says. He is loading his LT 20-gauge shotgun. "When we were tots my dad always raised bird dogs and he'd come up right across here. We'd get a little sack and we'd all bring back a bag of apples. We'd come get those and hazelnuts and a few walnuts, things like that.

"He'd have his four or five kids and by the time he got up here and got back sometimes there'd be about 20 kids. He'd have his three or four bird dogs and he'd say, 'Be quiet. The dogs are working.' When the dogs would point, we'd get a chance to see pheasants, turkeys, things like that."

In the thick woods he pauses. "See that knothole tree right there? A squirrel might feed its way up through it."

For the next half-hour he stands almost completely still watching the tree. Crickets and chipmunks make the only sounds. Then, as the sun sets, deer begin calling to each other as they make their way down the mountain to feed. "You should be here in the morning," he whispers. "In the morning all you hear is turkeys gobbling all along this ridge."

When the light has faded to lemon gray Jeff heads back for the truck. He has not seen any squirrels, not that it matters.

At the top of the hill a half-dozen hunters sit around a dying fire. One of them, a small, bearded man, is a foreman at a nearby mine. "How come you don't give me a job?" Jeff says. It is meant as a joke and the small man laughs.

The small man is talking about a mountain back near Gary. "That ridge is plum full of squirrels," he says. All you can see is the silhouette of nodding heads. At this time of night it is possible to think the men who know these woods own these woods, and that nothing will ever happen to disturb them.