Can a professional news reporter seriously believe that arson is "part of the culture in northern Buchanan . . . County" {"Virginia Coal Region Long Plagued by Arson," Metro, Nov. 10}? Can The Post really have printed such a statement?

In Dana Priest's article, an interesting new wrinkle in genetics was proposed by Virginia's chief fire investigator, Melton Morris. "It's born in you," Morris said of the alleged proclivity for arson by those who live in the mountain "holler{s}." Let us thank a merciful God that Morris did not choose biology as a career field (though I'd love to know whether the arson gene is dominant or recessive).

Investigator Arthur Cox has a different theory: being a coal miner is the cause. "It's the history of many people who worked in the mines," he said. Both my grandfathers and a fair number of my uncles and cousins were coal miners in southwest Virginia. It's hard work for a hard dollar, but I never knew it to drive any of them to pyromania. Maybe they were too busy staring in befuddled wonder at the rare sight of a helicopter, which your reporter seems to think is such a "main attraction" for the locals. (Dear hearts, there are probably more helicopters per capita in the coal fields than in most other areas of the country. Owing to the tortuous nature of southwest Virginia's roads, rich folks there buy helicopters and private planes instead of BMWs.)

I could go on being sarcastic about the idiocies you printed (though I really can't let it pass that your reporter thinks a hollow -- which, by the way, is not spelled "holler," even by those who pronounce it that way -- and a canyon are the same thing. A canyon is a gorge formed by two steep cliffs; a hollow is a valley. There isn't a canyon within 300 miles of Buchanan County). But something is wrong here beyond sloppiness and ineptitude.

As The Post has reported elsewhere, forest fires -- and arson -- have been rampant throughout the southeastern United States in recent weeks, yet your article left the impression that the problem and cause are traceable to the way of life in the coal fields of Virginia. Using a news story about arson to perpetuate a stereotype of isolated, demented hillbillies is as bigoted -- and as contemptible -- as if a reporter had been sent to cover an increase in the homicide rate in Southeast Washington and had returned with the conclusion that "murder is part of the culture of Anacostia." To imply that arson and criminality are somehow emblematic of the good, hard-working people of the Virginia coal fields is a monstrous libel. -- Michael Edens