BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — Bill Nesselrotte owns a coal company that doesn’t mine coal anymore. Still, a few days each week, he straps on a backpack and pushes through the brush to collect jars of water from streams, ponds, wells and springs — samples to prove to the government that he’s not a polluter.
There has been no drilling, no blasting for more than two years on the 150 acres Nesselrotte leases here — not since the bottom dropped out of a market that once provided a good livelihood for him and a couple dozen other people in West Virginia’s dramatically narrow valleys. These days, his mine is nothing but a rock-crushing business, selling limestone to anyone who shows up with a dump truck, $150 a load, barely enough to keep one man employed.
But to keep crushing rocks, Nesselrotte must keep his coal permits active, and that means collecting water samples, 48 trips a month. A slew of other new rules keeps him at his dining-room table, slaving over paperwork deep into the night. Such burdens are, he says, a major reason 76 percent of Upshur County voters last month put their trust in the man who promised to slash government regulations and bring back coal — Donald Trump.
Coal country offers a counterweight to the palpable anxiety about Trump in some parts of the country. Here, people said they are “euphoric” and “thrilled” about the incoming president, even in the valley where Nesselrotte has no customers for his coal. That optimism is pervasive even after Trump last week chose as his commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, the Manhattan billionaire who in 2006 owned the mine just down the hill, where an underground explosion killed 12 miners, the region’s worst coal disaster in decades.
“West Virginians are realists,” said Nesselrotte, a mining engineer by education and a serial entrepreneur by virtue of living in a place that still depends on coal, even though nearly every mine within an hour’s drive has closed in recent years. “The mines have been shut down, the railroads have been torn up, the preparation plants have closed. A lot of stuff has been done that can’t be undone.
“But I’m really looking forward to this president,” he said. “It’s kind of refreshing to see people come into government who know how business works.”
Still, for some, especially for families who felt the mine disaster firsthand, the naming of Ross has dulled the thrill of Trump’s victory.
“I don’t like that choice,” Vickie Boni, 74, said. “I always felt the company was responsible.”
Boni’s ex-husband, John Boni, was the fire boss, in charge of checking safety at the Sago Mine. Five days before the explosion, he alerted superiors to a leak of dangerous methane gas. A freak lightning strike ignited the methane, investigators later said. Right after the explosion, John Boni retired, after 36 years in the mines. A few months later, he put a bullet in his head.
Still, Vickie Boni remains optimistic that Trump will live up to his promise to restore coal jobs. “That’s people’s livelihoods,” she said. Her father went into the mines at 14 and was killed in a mine at 44. Her son might have ended up mining, too, but there was no work, so he moved to North Carolina, a story that many older parents here tell about their now-distant children.
Ross did not respond to a request for comment about the Sago disaster. An inveterate buyer of deeply troubled companies, he had bought the mine only a couple of months before the explosion and was not on-site when the men were killed. In a televised interview in 2006, soon after the tragedy, Ross told ABC that he knew the mine had been cited with 208 violations, that he accepted responsibility for the disaster, that he had not made a personal contribution toward a fund for the miners’ families, and that his company “never scrimped on safety expenditures.”
Several investigations concluded that the mine’s owner, International Coal Group, was responsible for the safety violations, but that the violations did not cause the explosion. Only one miner who was trapped survived.
Helen Winans’s son Marshall died at Sago, and although she blames the company for what happened, she does not see Ross as culpable.
“It wasn’t his fault,” she said, “it was the people here. People went into the mine unprotected because they’d been drinking. The company should have had better safety, and the inspectors should have the sense to shut them down and slap fines on them, but it’s dangerous work.”
Dangerous, but essential, she said: Before the price of coal collapsed, before the number of working miners in the state fell to a 100-year low of 15,000, miners could make $60,000, even $75,000 a year, without a high school education. Walmart money doesn’t come close.
Winans, 85, lost one son in the mine and another on a gas drilling rig. Her husband died of black lung disease after a life in the mines. Eighteen years later, Winans still hasn’t remarried because marriage would end her black lung benefits.
“The government makes you live in sin,” she said. She’s lived with a man for years, always feeling a bit guilty about it, “but I’m not giving up that money for a piece of paper that says ‘I do.’ ”
Despite the tragedies that have marked her life, Winans prays for the return of coal, and she says Trump will make it happen.
“I like the way he talks — straight,” she said, “not like that Hillary [Clinton], the way she got up there and shook her finger and said she’d shut every mine down. What would that do to West Virginia?” (In March, the Democratic presidential candidate had said in a CNN town hall that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right? . . . Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels.”)
Trump’s appeal here is stylistic as well as policy-driven, said David McCauley, the mayor of Buckhannon, the county seat, a pretty and bustling town of 5,700. It’s about coal, but also about being ornery and oppositional.
“Trump was just what people here have always been — skeptical of government, almost libertarian,” McCauley said. “He’s a West Virginia pipe dream: He’s going to undo the damage to the coal industry and bring back the jobs, and all of our kids down there in North Carolina are going to come home.”
McCauley, who is also a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, one of the town’s biggest employers, was taken aback when Trump named Ross.
“The whole history of West Virginia is exploitation by outside influences,” he said. “Now the guy 80 percent of us voted for turns around and nominates one of the least favorite names in Upshur County. If he brings in more billionaires and Mitt Romney is secretary of state, people will say, ‘Well, wait a minute now.’ But if the economy turns around, he’ll get the credit.”
McCauley, 58, is a Republican but not a Trumpian. He was a Jeb Bush delegate and ended up voting for Clinton “because the last thing we need is two or three more Antonin Scalias” on the Supreme Court. Like many here, he doesn’t fit neatly into Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” He’s pro-abortion rights, pro-gay marriage, he said, “a fervent separation-of-church-and-state guy, a social progressive.” But McCauley is a Republican because government seemed too big and intrusive, and because, as he put it, “you could not move to Buckhannon and settle into a public position without being a Republican. I can do my job better when people say, ‘He’s one of us.’ ”
West Virginia’s Democratic roots are obvious, even though the state hasn’t voted blue in a presidential race since 1996. Upshur County’s delegate to the state legislature, Bill Hamilton, calls himself “an oxymoron Republican,” because he’s closely bound to the unions. Like many here, his skepticism of the big businesses that own many mines sits deep in his bones, and the Sago disaster only cemented that doubt. One miner who was killed was Hamilton’s client at his insurance agency, another was his lockermate from junior high school and a third was a family acquaintance.
Hamilton never worked in the mines, warned away by his father, who toiled underground until he was drafted to fight in World War II, and who lost two brothers to mining. Still, he finds himself fervently hoping Trump will reopen the coal fields and invest in technology to diminish the environmental damage. Coal, he said, remains the state’s lifeline.
But although Hamilton came around to Trump after initially supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich, he wonders if the selection of Ross means Trump might not really be a friend to miners. Hamilton has been pushing Congress to pass a bill to preserve pension benefits that thousands of miners are set to lose next year because so many coal companies have gone belly up.
“Ross bought companies and then severed the benefits to make more profit,” Hamilton said. “So do you think that bill’s going to go anywhere now?”
Thomas Toler remains “euphoric” about the Trump win and the prospect of a coal revival. Toler’s uncle was killed in the Sago disaster; the two had worked together in the mines for years. Thomas could never go back underground after the trauma: “It was survivor’s guilt, and just not being able to be there with him.”
But the tragedy made Toler, 55, no less devoted to the industry that defines his family and his community, and he said he misses the mines every day.
“It’s your parents’ and your grandparents’ and your life,” he said. “You just accept the risk, just like driving an automobile or playing football. You have to live. And my uncle, like me, loved it more than anything. If you have a curious mind or any interest in geology, you’re setting foot every day where no man has ever set foot before.”
Toler said his hopes now are bound up in Trump’s presidency. “I guess I really want to believe it’s really going to be different,” he said.
The shuttered Sago Mine is now a gentle, grassy hillside marked only by a chain-link fence. Up the hill, Nesselrotte would like to restore a similarly green cover to the barren rock of his idled surface mine, as he has done at nine other locations through the years.
“All my other mines, you can’t even tell it was ever mined,” he said. “This one, I’m ashamed of.”
But Nesselrotte cannot afford to plant trees at the site, an open wound of brown and gray threaded with black veins of once-precious coal. And he would like to finish mining it first. So he waits, selling the occasional load of rocks, hoping to drill again and to bring back the workers he had to lay off.
“I’m realistic. I know Trump will have to compromise,” Nesselrotte said. But he was “tickled to death” last week when Trump announced a deal in which Carrier, the air-conditioning and heating company, will keep about a thousand jobs in Indiana instead of moving them to Mexico.
“And he’s not even in authority yet,” Nesselrotte marveled. “I’m thinking we could be back in business.”