Rebecca Foley, by contrast, seems desperate to discuss that topic. Sitting at a cluttered desk in her library, she talks a blue streak about the seven-year battle that she’s waged against Consol Energy, the owner of Dilworth Mine. A petite nurse whose golden locks and ruby cheeks belie the warrior within, Foley, 50, lives atop a ridge in Jefferson, just west of the Hatfield’s Ferry coal-fired power plant (among the state’s 10 dirtiest). She moved to the basin in 1986 from the Virginia side of
Washington, D.C., in the hope of escaping the urban tussle. She bought her 1890s house in April 1994 — two months before Act 54 would repeal the safeguards for historic homes — and spent the next five years restoring it, stripping eight rooms, sinking $250,000 into the project. By 1999, not a crack could be found — until the longwall machine arrived.
It took a week for the machine to chew the coal beneath her property. If Foley hadn’t known that it was there, she’d never have suspected the presence of the whirling mechanism. Houses don’t rumble or drop with a thud. Subsidence comes slowly, like a ripple. Foley first noticed its mark on June 22, 1999, when she discovered what she describes as “this unsightly scene”: a gaping crack in the wall, running from the ceiling, three feet long. She remembers peering through it to the outside. She jotted a description on paper labeled “Mining Damages.” Over the next six days, she added more entries, 34 of them in all, including, for example, these:
Master Suite — marble panels pulling away from east wall
Outside of the House — stone addition pulling away from brick
Foundation—cracks with heaving in 2 areas.
Over the years, things got worse — the cracks kept widening; the addition, falling. Foley has done cosmetic work to patch the disrepair, stuffing insulation into holes, hiding them with duct tape and paint-able wallpaper. She’s had to do something because, she says, “It gets very disheartening looking at all these cracks and plaster drops all day.”
As Foley points out the wreckage — noting fractures that inspire nightmares about her house sinking into the abyss — it becomes apparent how insidious longwall mining can be for those on the surface. There are the never-ending disruptions, starting with a letter from Consol or Foundation that starts, “This Notice is sent to you in accordance with ….” The note informs you that a local mine is conducting operations underneath your property, and that the operations could happen anytime in the ensuing six months to five years. At first, a company agent knocks on your door. Scientists then trek through your home, surveying conditions, testing water supplies. Often, the agent appears again — this time, to plug your gas well. You may have to stand by idly as contractors bring bulldozers onto your land, felling your trees, clearing your fields. Then, one day, the longwall machine is moving beneath you and, if you end up like the unlucky ones who’ve reported damages to the state (1,819 at last count), your property is falling apart.
“You feel violated,” is how Ken Hupp puts it. The building contractor lives above Mine 84, in Amwell Township, and has watched the brick house that he built himself drop two inches after the steel shearer passed underneath in February 2006. Hupp and his family didn’t lose their house, although the same cannot be said of their swimming pool. “This has destroyed our lives,” he says. “You’re like prisoners.”
For folks in the coalfields, longwall anxiety can become all-consuming. Many sleepless nights and perhaps heart attacks and strokes have resulted from the longwall experience. Everyone, it seems, has a story about someone suffering from some stress-provoked disease because of it. Hupp believes that his wife, Marsha, has worried herself sick. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor the weekend the mining started, after living in fear of it for years. Laurine Williams, an 82-year-old whippersnapper who lives with her husband, Murray, above Emerald Mine, has fought Foundation for a decade. When they were undermined in March 2001, an event that sunk the house five inches and dislodged 15,000 bricks, she developed asthma for the first time and he, shingles. Foley, too, has bouts of the “three Ds”—“Distressed, Depressed, and Defeated.” She’s gnawed her teeth so hard her crowns have chipped, causing her to lament the “inhumane” way the companies treat people. “The pain and suffering,” she says, “has been so covered up.”
So is the extent of the ruin. Since the practice affects only a handful of landowners at any give time, its destruction can seem limited. But that would be an illusion. Over an 87-mile span, I walked into buildings with shattered foundations, crooked roofs, split beams, broken bricks, shunted doors, and cracked plaster. I saw structures that had tilted 13 inches and fallen five. I even saw wallpaper torn asunder by walls torquing behind it. Virtually every structure above a longwall mine suffered some subsidence. One house, still in disrepair, will cost $113,000 to fix. The compensation tab on another registered $300,000; yet another, $320,000. In a 2001 study of underground mining, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) calculated the average cost of structural damage by longwall mines at $79,000, based on a limited number of reports.
And that’s a fraction of the plunder. There are countless acres of “slippage,” as the locals describe the phenomenon, where hillsides open up like draining bathtubs. Sometimes, the earth dips where it didn’t before. Other times, it drops inches. People have stuck yardsticks into land cracks without touching bottom. When the longwall machine erupts the surface, it takes the water, too, which drains through crevices by force of gravity. Sources may reappear yards away but, for landowners, they’re gone. Everyone knows someone who has lost a well or a spring. Others have fared worse. Hupp’s daughter, Marcy, lives next door to him on 17 acres; longwall mining dispossessed her of nine springs. The Williamses were deprived of two springs and a pond, which tilted and turned into a silt pool. Their neighbor, Dick Patterson, a cattle farmer who resides 250 feet above Emerald Mine, has watched all seven of the springs he’d developed dry up. Meanwhile, 23 stretches over 97 miles of stream have dammed, diminished, or disappeared.
“I have a hard time explaining to my kids this is okay,” Kim Jones says, motioning toward the dry rock where her children, Kaitlyn and D.J., jump around. They’re playing in what used to be a gushing stream that cut across the 62-acre farm in Wind Ridge, above the Bailey Mine’s 1I panel. The flow meandered through their acreage fast enough to sustain three waterfalls year-round. The falls are gone now, as is the sound of any ripple. “We’re taught from a young age to believe [that] what is put here is by God,” she goes on, as her children stomp on the depleted ground. “So how do I justify to my kids that the taking of our water is fine?”
The daughter of a coal miner, Kim, 43, has round, obsidian eyes that blaze with indignation whenever she recounts what her family
has endured. She and her husband, Kenny, a hulking 46-year-old with a humble demeanor, moved to this village in 1993 to settle into a quiet, agrarian life. Ten years later, they were duking it out with Consol over possession of gas wells, a fight that persists in court today. Since the longwall machine went beneath their property in early 2004, the Joneses have lost wells for not only gas, but also water. They believe it defiled their wood-framed house—hence the ceiling cracks and plaster drops. But what they consider their biggest loss is the beloved stream, which disappeared once the steel shearer came. Scientists say every flow reacts differently to the method: some get de-watered; others lessen in force; still others pool up. Kenny discovered that his creek had drained after trekking to its banks to feed the wild deer. He and Kim walked its length, taking in the drought, recording the broken rock. Consol later sent geologists to monitor Tributary #32596; their pictures show the bed rising, empty, in all four seasons.
Three years later, the company began “restoring” the creek. In her yard, Kim points to a pipe that Consol is using to finish its state-required remediation. It’s running the line about a mile to the dried stream, where it will unleash public water. The Joneses, like so many in the coalfields, don’t exactly want “city water,” replete with the iron, manganese, and chlorine found in municipal supplies. They especially don’t want it pumped into their stream, as has happened to other runs in the area. But that won’t stop the coal companies from doing it — or the DEP from letting it. Consol scientists say the company pumps water from springs, wells, and public lines into local streams to maintain the ecosystem and, in the words of its hydrogeologist, Joshua Silvis, “to keep the channels wet, as required by law.” It de-chlorinates and aerates the public water first. “Our view is these mitigation techniques will be effective,” Silvis has told me, “and the state has agreed.” On this August 2007 afternoon, contractors have laid the groundwork for the pipe, drilling holes in the bed, filling them with an epoxy grout. Standing on a patch of the gray stuff, the Joneses look as if they’re walking on pavement.
However the remediation turns out, the brook has forever changed for this family. Gone are the days Kim and Kenny would walk along its banks with their daughter, Kaitlyn, now 14. The girl skipped rocks, scoured for salamanders, and marveled in the sight
of deer and turkey. “It was fun,” she says, wistfully. Since the stream vanished, she’s noticed the wildlife don’t come around, and the only salamanders she finds are dead. “I had so much fun in that stream. I said, ‘Mom, what about D.J.?’” Kaitlyn continues, referring to he sixyear-old brother. “He might have seen a dry stream, but he’s never going to experience what I have. I feel bad for him.”
While kids mourn the loss of their childhoods, adults have mourned the loss of something more tangible — their livelihoods. Indeed, among the many hit by longwall mining, the local farmer has suffered big blows. Folks who cultivate produce and breed livestock around here are small-time agriculturists whose 45, 95, or 135 acres represent a fraction of the commercial farms in central Pennsylvania. They can make money off their land, but most work full-time jobs, too. Every farmer knows a colleague who’s had to
grapple with fallout from the longwall machine. They’ve had water dams dry up, cornfields flood, and ranch fences slip down hillsides, freeing 70-strong herds. They’ve noticed their land become harder to till and pastures tougher to cut. Farmers yet to be undermined fear the gamble that comes with it — the way it can suck water from the earth and, in the process, render their land worthless.
King Coal has hobbled the most stubborn clodhoppers. Dick Patterson, the cattle farmer who lost his springs, has 70 cows grazing on 203 acres that he owns and rents, as compared with the 100 cows and 500 acres he’d maintained before the mining in the winter of 2002. He’s had to “raise hell” with Foundation executives to get something like the flow he once enjoyed; currently, the company pumps city water into a pipeline that serves eight fountains for the cows. The animals lap up more than a thousand gallons a day — enough to put Patterson out of business were he covering the cost. Twelve miles north, across the county line, Ellen and Ed Walker (not their real names) are fruit growers whose 121 acres overlie three longwall panels and a conventional corridor for a nearby colliery. They’ve seen their operations shrivel from 90 acres of apples, peaches, and berries to just nine today, largely because of the mining. The longwall machine chewed the coal along the Walkers’ property three times — in 2001, 2002, and 2003 — and took two irrigation sources. The stream they’d dammed subsided; their pond sloped south (the two springs flowing into it also vanished). Both water supplies are now overgrown with green algae; the stream has turned orange. Since they can’t irrigate crops with bad water, the Walkers have had to reduce not just their fruit fields but their vegetable gardens — from 10,000 tomato plants down to 600, for example.
The Walkers have survived, but others haven’t been so lucky. Harold Van Druff is one such person. Rocking in his porch swing, Van Druff, a squat 76-year-old with a deep, soporific voice, reminisces about the good old days on his 66-acre farm, when he ranked among Greene County’s top dairymen. In 1956, he took over the Kirby homestead that his forebears had run for two generations, and ventured into the milk business. He pumped 50 cows by hand until the ’70s, when he installed a pipeline and upped production to 8,000 pounds a day. Now, save for the weathered barn’s “Drink Milk” sign and the Dairy Farm Road address, you’d never guess he had a creamery. The dairy cows have faded, a decade-old casualty of longwall mining.
In September 1996, Van Druff was getting it from all sides. Cumberland Mine had come at his property from the west; Blacksville 2, from the south. Subsidence shook most of his structures — the barn, silos, and milk plant — but what did him in was the water loss. It started with his 100-foot well, which lost water and grew polluted with methane gas. Then the cows’ reservoir went dry. Consol hauled municipal water to the farm in two 1,500-gallon tanks twice a week. When the cows first drank it, they got sick. Van Druff figured out that the chlorine was killing bacteria in the animals’ udders, so he fed them yeast and nursed them back to health. It wouldn’t be the last of his troubles. Dairy farmers cannot ship milk unless their water meets government health standards. When inspectors tested the public water, Van Druff recounts, “I had constant problems.” Sitting in those tanks, it collected algae and contaminants. Van Druff can’t remember passing a single inspection. He kept delaying deliveries and losing money. By year’s end, he did what he’d never expected to do: He sold his dairy cows.
“I had cows I was real proud of. These weren’t a bunch of animals on a farm. Giving them up was hard for me,” he says, trailing off. To salvage his farm, Van Druff substituted 25 beef cattle for the dairy cows. But things remained tough — his income plummeted; his creditors sent foreclosure papers. Eventually, Consol paid him six figures for the longwall damage, which hasn’t made up for his lost dairy checks. Nowadays, Van Druff earns about $15,000 a year from his 100-strong herd — one-fifth what he made on the creamery. He drives a school bus for $72 a day to bring in extra money. “Oh jeepers,” he exclaims, with a sigh. “The stress is hard on you. You think you’re getting along good, and then this happens. You just break down and cry.”
Small-time farmers are no match for the corporate giants of the coal industry — unlike, say, agribusiness giants such as Archer Daniels Midland or Del Monte would be. Still, the longwall machine has managed to wipe out farms — and anything else above its path—with help from the state agency that’s charged with protecting Pennsylvania’s citizenry and environment: the Department of Environmental Protection. In implementing Act 54, the DEP’s mining bureau has the authority to deny permits in key instances: first, if the longwall method is likely to cause “irreparable damage to buildings”; and second, if it is likely to cause “material damage” to certain water bodies. Environmental regulations for “pollution” in streams — including loss of flow — also apply. But the division has rarely rescinded approval for a de-watered stream (one known case in 10 years), let alone for structural havoc. According to environmental activists, the industry plays the system so well that it’s got the bureau in its pocket, working on behalf of the mines rather than the public. Why else would regulators allow coal companies to take the water from farms, like Van Druff ’s, and alter an ecosystem? Or destroy perennial streams, like the Joneses’, and patch them up with artificial materials? Or move the longwall machine under historic houses, like Foley’s, and shake apart their foundations?
“The mining office sees its main purpose as facilitating mining,” says Tom Buchele, the director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Pittsburgh, “not protecting the health and safety of the public and environment.”
Buchele, who describes longwall mining as “the gorilla in the room in southwestern Pennsylvania,” and his students have represented more than a half-dozen residents of Greene and Washington counties in complaints filed with the DEP against coal companies. What’s struck him about the cases is how reluctant the department seems to be to rule against the industry. He’s seen the pattern play out since his first complaint, in 2003, involving a landowner whose well drained within six weeks of the longwall machine’s visit. Inspectors chalked it up to drought and shoddy upkeep — despite the well’s 200-year track record. “The DEP won’t [rule] against coal companies unless the evidence is overwhelming — almost beyond a reasonable doubt,” he says, “and that’s an impossible hurdle for landowners.”
William Plassio, the manager of the DEP’s mining bureau, declined my requests to be interviewed for this article. In response to a list of 12 questions, the DEP’s press office provided a seven-page statement outlining provisions of Act 54 and other environmental rules governing the agency’s oversight of longwall mining. “The actions of the DEP are based on law and regulation” — a law that permits impacts to people’s properties and water supplies, the statement says, adding that “the DEP actively and fully enforces environmental requirements,” citing such actions as “ordering mining companies to restore or replace water supplies and . . . to pay compensation for structure damage.” The agency has also set up a program of subsidence agents to help landowners understand their legal rights, which it calls “very successful.” As the statement has it, “The DEP takes action to require mine operators to meet their statutory duties to landowners prescribed by” Act 54.
But citizens who try to reclaim what the longwall machine took away can end up in the throes of a confusing regulatory system—only to be left with illogical DEP rulings. Consider the Joneses, who lost their stream to Bailey Mine. On the one hand, the agency determined the mining had sucked the water from the brook and the family’s well, blaming subsidence “in a fragile hydrogeologic setting.” On the other hand, the DEP concluded that the activity didn’t cause the ceiling cracks and plaster drops inside the house because it sits too far from the longwall panel — even though it’s closer (at 700 feet) than the well (at 760). Or take the Walkers, the farmers whose irrigation sources faltered. In May 2003, a year after the machine had gnawed their property 600 feet north and was still gnawing it 40 feet south, Ellen saw what she suspects is subsidence in her 192-year-old house — new wallpaper wrinkled and then split in half outside the seam, for instance. There was also the water trouble. The mine denied liability and, except for the pond, the DEP would agree.
Never mind that the farm is located within the so-called “presumptive zone,” where water damage is presumed to have come from
mining. Act 54 defines the area as a 35-degree angle from a mine; the Walkers’ pond and stream sit 15 degrees from the nearest longwall panels. Never mind that the mine didn’t survey their house before mining — a violation for which it was fined $750. Inexplicably, state inspectors attributed the wreckage to “age of the structure” and “soil shrinkage,” among other factors. Ellen remembers a DEP official telling her that the wallpaper had ripped because of the glue; another said the stream dam had sunk because of tree roots.
“DEP officials don’t have any concern for the average landowner,” says John McGinnis, a 62-year-old entrepreneur who lives above Mine 84’s 3B and 4B panels. “They’re more like middlemen standing between you and the mine.”
Sitting on the porch of his 1880s farmhouse overlooking his 100 acres, McGinnis is a former Marine whose neck turns red whenever he starts in on his four-year battle with Consol. Proprietor of a Pittsburgh food emporium, he moved to the hollow in 1988 seeking the perfect farm. By 2001, he’d gotten notice from the coal company about the mining, setting off the cycle of disruptions. When the longwall machine arrived in April 2004, it totaled the house, three springs, a well, and a pond. “I don’t like anyone stepping on my chest,” he says, explaining why he’s refused to settle with Consol and instead exercised the limited rights afforded landowners in Act 54.
The law requires that landowners report suspected longwall damage to the mines first, a provision that coal executives insist benefits citizens more than it does them. “When I undermine your house, I know it. You know it. All we have to decide is what I owe you,” says Hoffman, of Consol (the only coal company that agreed to comment for this article). “It’s not true that the system is set up with decks stacked against the individual landowner.”
What is true is that you, as an individual landowner, have to negotiate with a major corporation. Under Act 54, you have to sit at the table for at least six months before you can turn to the state for help. Sometimes, the company’s agent fails to inform the DEP about your report — a violation, in McGinnis’s case, for which Consol received official warning. Other times, you have to call and write the agent for months before discovering that the firm has denied responsibility for the damage or low-balled repairs. To challenge its position, you must go to the DEP, which can force payments. You then have to deal with numerous inspectors — subsidence agents, geologic specialists — peering into your private spaces. McGinnis has hired experts — an attorney, an engineer — to help him navigate the process. In July 2007, the DEP ordered Consol to pay him $506,041 for damage to two barns, a shed, and the house, which tilts a dizzying eight feet.
McGinnis hasn’t seen results with his water complaint, however. It may be arrogant for the coal company to dismiss the tie between longwall mining and what happened to his springs and pond — they, like his house, are no longer the same. Right before the mining, he videotaped the springs spilling into his pond. On the tape, the sound of trickling water resonates as he squats at the pond’s edge, his hand immersed in blue liquid. He states, prophetically, “It’d be a real shame to lose this natural resource.” Now, with those springs dried up, the pond has become stagnant, shallow, riddled with duckweed. Consol has argued that the pond never went dry, so the mining hasn’t harmed it. And although Act 54 requires the company to restore water supplies, the DEP has ruled in its favor. The mining bureau seems so willing to back the industry, in fact, that it’s broken agency regulations. In August 2007, its officials ordered Consol to dam another spring on McGinnis’s land that had slid downhill after the mining so as to provide a drinking trough for his 47 cattle. McGinnis had heard that the state doesn’t allow anyone to alter a flow without a permit, so he called the DEP’s watershed division. “I was told,” he recalls, “ ‘Absolutely not — you can’t mess with that creek.’” Only after he wrote the bureau an August 11, 2007, letter — refusing liability for the dam and relaying that his cows weren’t so much drinking the spring as urinating in it — did inspectors change course.
If McGinnis wanted to contact his legislators for help, it’d do him little good. The coal industry pretty much runs the politicians here, though no one will admit it. Mining interests have lined the pockets of elected officials with campaign cash in every way since 2000; by 2007, there were contributions from FORCE ($139,525), the UMWA ($130,459), the Pennsylvania Coal Association ($321,622), and executives at Consol ($253,207) and Foundation ($51,926). They’ve funneled some of that cash into the campaign coffers of the area’s four state lawmakers — Senator Barry Stout, as well as Representatives Bill DeWeese, Pete Daley, and Tim Solobay. Stout, a Democrat who’s served the 46th district for three decades, has raised more money from King Coal than his House counterparts, raking in $32,050 over the past seven years. Twice, the industry has topped his list of market donors. DeWeese, the 32-year Greene County representative and powerful House Majority Leader, has received $15,550 in all. In 2006, in a tight reelection race, he raked in more donations from mining interests, $7,100, than all but one state legislator. Daley and Solobay, two Democrats representing Washington County who’ve been members of the Coal Caucus, took in $8,700 and $8,400. Some politicians have benefited from the coal economy directly. To wit: GDR Management, an affiliate of a firm once headed by Stout’s brother and now by his nephew, has contracted with Consol to turn 1,385 acres above Mine 84 into a housing and office complex, complete with a golf course.
“I’m not doing anything I feel is improper,” Stout told me recently when asked about his ties to coal companies. “I try to be fair and balanced on all issues . . . I’m not in the pocket of any industry.” Solobay (the only other legislator to respond to interview requests) has echoed this sentiment. “I wouldn’t hold back on criticizing the industry simply because I receive campaign contributions from it,” he’s said. “I feel strongly about my integrity. . . . I don’t accept political contributions at the expense of the people.”
King Coal flexes its political muscle in subtler ways as well. Companies curry favor with the locals through “good neighbor” initiatives meant to burnish their image. There was Foundation’s 2006 donation of $200,000 to remodel a Greene County water park, now named the Foundation Coal Aquatic Center. In July 2007, the company’s executives hosted a dedication ceremony, offering free entry, cutting ribbons with Stout and DeWeese. There was Consol’s 2007 purchase, for an undisclosed sum, of naming rights to a local baseball stadium. All summer, the minor league team played in Consol Energy Park while fans brandished Consol Energy bobblehead figurines. And then there were the perks intended to brush up community relations. Scott Finch, a supervisor in Morris Township, whose 2,090 residents have protested the encroaching footprints of the Bailey and Enlow Fork mines, recalls that while Consol was seeking a permit for a proposed coal facility, the company asked him and his fellow supervisors for a “wish list” of possible contributions. The board demurred, though soon after, Consol pledged $150,000 to the township’s fire department toward purchase of a state-of-theart rescue vehicle. When Consol fixed longwall damages at the park of East Finley Township, officials say, the company did more than fill in the sunken field. It built barbecue pavilions, erected playground equipment, and relocated an historic covered bridge, among other things. In the summer of 2007, at the grand opening, which cost Consol $5,400, festivities included a clown, a magic show, and free burgers for all 1,489 residents. Township supervisors got to feast on a free steak dinner, during which they unveiled an $80,000 dump truck paid for, in part, by Consol.
“People will villainize the coal company,” says Evan Mungai, the district manager for Bailey and Enlow Fork mines, who oversaw the rehabilitation of the park. “But the things we do go so far above and beyond what we’re required to do.”
J. Brett Harvey, Consol’s chief executive officer, has trumpeted these efforts in press releases as well. “We take pride in Consol Energy serving as one of the good business news stories in western Pennsylvania,” he’s said. “We are deepening our commitment to the region by working to add to the quality of life of our employees, their families, and our neighbors.”
It’s no surprise that the industry would push its spin every chance it gets. What bothers people in the coalfields is the way politicians regurgitate the messages. Like when Representative Solobay tells me that tighter controls on the longwall method would lead, inevitably, to job losses. “A lot of products utilize coal,” he says, sounding a lot like a Consol spokesperson, ticking off everything from steel to perfume. “The whole tree of products that stems out of coal is very extensive.” Both the representative and his Senate counterpart defend Act 54 as a fair and effective piece of legislation that’s only strengthened the protections for landowners; before 1994, they note, the coal industry didn’t have to replace water supplies when mining under post-’66 houses. Stout, who voted for Act 54, admits that longwall mining has negatives — “You change the surface water flow; you destroy people’s homes.” But he maintains that the law now provides all homeowners with safeguards while enabling the industry to use modern technology. Act 54 “is not perfect — nothing is perfect,” he says, “but it’s worked pretty effectively so far.”
Neither lawmaker seems much of a crusader for folks in the coalfields. Stout, for one, mentions that “thousands of my constituents” work in the mines, and thousands more in related fields. “I am looking out for their interests,” he says, candidly, sitting in his district office, in Eighty-Four, Pennsylvania, just three miles down the road from Mine 84. Asked about his other constituents — the ones who may feel jilted by the status quo—he replies: “There are people who maybe feel disgruntled . . . There are always going to be complaints, but you try to have a system that works for the majority.” Solobay, for his part, paints the critics as, in essence, frauds. “In all fairness,” he says, “many times people look at the coal companies as deep pockets, and they try to get more money than they deserve.” He’s toured houses whose hairline cracks, he says, don’t look anything like they came from a longwall machine. “I’ve thought, ‘That’s old and you’re looking to make an issue of it.’” The average landowner may not take advantage of the coal companies, he concedes, “but there are people who game the system.” He adds: “I know people who have built brand-new homes or who have gotten city water out of this and now don’t have to deal with wells. They’re happy, so it all depends on what side you look at the issue.”
Coalfield-justice activists relay anecdote after anecdote of fruitless efforts to gain the attention of lawmakers. They’ve made phone calls, sent e-mails, and written letters decrying longwall mining. They’ve shown up at district offices loaded down with documents. They’ve chartered buses to the statehouse for “coalfield communities” days. There, they’ve witnessed King Coal’s clout on display: a framed photograph of House leader DeWeese with UMWA workers that read “Remember who got you here”; a miniature hardhat for Representative Solobay stenciled with the black letters “FORCE.” At home, politicians have shaken their heads in dismay on field trips showcasing the longwall devastation, only to do nothing for change. The sole local legislator to champion the cause — Dave Levdansky, a Democrat whose 39th district dips into Washington County — sponsored a bill in 2004 that would have modified Act 54. It died in committee.
“People in this area are really P.O.’d at the politicians,” says Aimee Erickson, a coalfield-justice activist who lives above Mine 84, in Amwell. “We hear the same story all the time and it’s like a taperecording. We hear, ‘What about the economy?’ and ‘What about the jobs?’”
Erickson offers this observation to me after a meeting of the Ten Mile Protection Network, a grass-roots group pushing for reform. Half a dozen members gathered on a hot, summer’s night at the house of Bill Lindley, the organization’s president, whose family has owned his 220-acre farm since 1849. Sitting in the dining room, surrounded by antique kettles and rifles, the members sipped iced coffee as they ticked off questions they’d like to ask their legislators:
How can the coal economy matter more than its impact on the community?
How can politicians keep up the ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ mantra when longwall mining has cut jobs in this state?
What’s it going to take to reform Act 54?
On its face, the state’s mining law sounds fair, so it’s easy to blame the injustices that landowners suffer on the way the DEP applies it — as in the McGinnis, Walker, and Jones cases. But activists and their allies pin the problem on the law itself. As they see it, Act 54 fails to protect landowners because it allows longwall mining at virtually any cost, as if everything were replaceable. Coal executives point out that they own the mineral rights to the seams, as well as the right to remove the coal, which they’d bought from landowners back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Basically,” Consol’s Hoffman says, “we’re allowed to extract this coal and to do so without ensuring the surface remains as is.” Someone pocketed money from these ancient deals, he argues, even though the coal wasn’t extracted: “You cannot ignore this in the story.” As coal officials see it, Act 54 actually circumscribes their right to get the coal. “On an individual basis, nobody wants to be undermined,” Hoffman explains. “That’s why the government has done what it’s done. It’s recognized that we as a society need the coal, that the rights the company has now are legal and valid rights, [and that] they cannot abrogate those rights.” That’s true, but largely because Act 54 favors the industry’s rights at the expense of other property rights. In the late ’80s, in fact, King Coal sued the state of Pennsylvania over its 1966 mining law, claiming that the then-ban on mining beneath houses and municipal buildings amounted to an unconstitutional “taking” of its property rights. The legal fight went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that, despite the mineral rights, the state can restrict mining under structures to protect the public interest. In other words, the industry lost its argument—until legislators amended the law to clear the way for longwall mining. “You’ve got to understand that the technology had changed,” Senator Stout says today, “so why shouldn’t we allow for new technology? That’s like saying, ‘Keep the horse and buggy and forget about the automobile.’”
Activists and their allies see things differently, of course. “Act 54 as it now exists represents a series of very poor compromises made by the legislature, whose legislative choices were likely influenced more by the coal industry than by citizens living in the coalfields,” observes Richard Ehmann, the retired environmental-court judge. Over the past decade, while representing dozens of Greene and Washington residents in damage complaints, he’s grown convinced that the law’s touted balance between competing rights is “nonsense.” “There are now tens of thousands of tons of coal that these companies can mine without having to use room-and-pillar methodology,” meaning that they make millions off people’s destroyed properties. “How is that a tradeoff for citizens of Pennsylvania?”
Tom Buchele, of the University of Pittsburgh, puts it more bluntly: “They’re destroying people’s homes and wells and streams and the value of their property. And all people get in return is minimal compensation. It’s outrageous.”
Back at the Ten Mile meeting, those in attendance have echoed these sentiments for hours. They’ve discussed the woes of neighbors victimized by longwall mines, and outlined the latest proposals to amend Act 54. They’ve lamented the ills of the status quo — the way the coal industry exploits the little guy, the way state officials turn a blind eye.
“This law is so poorly written it’s as if the coal companies and their attorneys wrote it themselves,” says Richard Yanock, who lives above Mine 84, in South Strabane, as others nod in agreement.
He turns to me and says, earnestly, that the mining companies “will portray us as a bunch of country bumpkins, but nothing is further from the truth.” He motions to the table. “You have a lot of sophisticated minds right here.” Later, in an interview, he has this to say about the landowner’s dilemma: “I don’t think this would ever happen in another state . . . Nobody in his right mind would ever put up with this stuff.”
Yanock, it seems, has put up with a lot. At 61, the bespectacled retiree has a calm demeanor that must have served him well as a controller for Ford Motor Company, where he worked for three decades. But his equanimity wanes when he recounts his trials with King Coal—and alludes to its crushing maneuvers. A fresh victim of the longwaller, he’s spent tens of thousands of dollars and 18 months trying to protect his newly built home. He’d twice gotten assurances that Mine 84 would not run under his property but ended up in its path anyway. Fearing the worst, he hired an engineer to mitigate for subsidence, using steel girders, wire cables, and compression ditches. The work has paid off; since mining ended in June 2007, he’s seen little more than hairline cracks in the drywall.
Still, Yanock cannot fathom the oddities that occurred while the steel shearer was slicing below his 10 acres. Mining was slated to last three weeks in January of 2007; it would drag on for a merciless five months. Typically, the machine moves under a structure quickly, so as to lessen damages. This time, it stopped in front of his house for three days, and then behind his house for another three. The machine would stall a third time near his garage, 200 feet away, for over a month. Yanock contacted Consol for answers, yet got no response. A DEP official blamed the delays on an “inventory problem,” but Yanock finds that explanation suspicious. Months earlier, he’d asked the DEP to help protect his $166,026 house, setting off a series of firm letters between the agency and the coal company about its “insufficient” mitigation plan. So, he is left to wonder, endlessly. “Was this intentional, to make my life miserable?” he says. “I don’t know.”
He wouldn’t be the first to suspect retaliation. In the coalfields, the industry can intimidate you just by virtue of its influence over your fate. Activists say that it’s almost impossible to organize, for fear of retribution. The more you protest, they maintain, the more the coal company could retaliate—as it undermines your yard, surveys your wreckage, hauls your water. Patterson, the Waynesburg cattle farmer, says he’s learned “to keep my mouth shut, I guess,” after speaking out against longwall mining at community meetings, only to field calls from Foundation agents repeating his complaints. Foley, the Jefferson homeowner, declined to talk publicly about her shattered house for years, until she could buy it back from Consol and never deal with its agent again.
“I have been told to my face, ‘If you don’t deal with us, we will make your life miserable,’” Foley says. “And believe me, they can.”
Companies can silence landowners through more standard tools of persuasion, doled out before the mining begins. There’s the so-called “pre-mining agreement,” featuring an “inconvenience payment,” upfront, worth 15 percent of your home’s market value. Accept this deal, and you effectively sign away your rights under Act 54, getting whatever the company deems for the ruin. Consol spokesperson Joseph Cerenzia insists that people who sign these pacts are not forced to opt out of the Act 54 process—“We cannot stop anyone from exercising their rights under state law,” he’s assured me. But that’s not according to the words of one such agreement I saw: “With respect to any subsidence damage . . . Surface Owner agrees that the remedies provided for under this Agreement shall be in lieu of all remedies provided for under the ‘Subsidence Act,’” it read. Another alternative for landowners is the buyout offer, wherein you sell your house to the mine for 15 percent more than its appraised value. Sometimes, these deals include a confidentiality clause that keeps the landowner silent and the public in the dark about the devastation of longwall mining. No one knows how standard the secrecy agreement is; Consol denies that it requires the clause. Yet I interviewed four property owners who had to abide by such a stipulation, and they all knew somebody who’d done the same. Talk of “gag orders” has surfaced in DEP reports as far back as 1999. Generally, the provision forbids disclosing an agreement’s “terms and conditions,” such as monetary awards. Some attorneys have advised their clients not to admit even having an agreement. Asked about his pact with Mine 84 — one that I found on record at the Washington County Register of Deeds — Yanock declined to confirm or deny it, explaining, “I don’t want to give anyone an opportunity to sue me.”
Even those who availed Act 54 have had to sign settlement agreements with confidentiality clauses to get the payments to which they’re entitled. These folks seem especially outraged by their ordeals yet wouldn’t go public if their lives depended on it. One couple who live in a modest house in Washington County above Mine 84 — among the 450 houses in a 7,500-acre permit — have settled with Consol on conditions of confidentiality and no liability. Alleged longwall damages include a sloping porch, a sagging staircase, a flooded basement, and a smashed-up garage. In 2005, after the DEP sided with the mining company, the couple turned to the Pennsylvania environmental court, as is allowed by law. Things weren’t going well, so recently, they’ve withdrawn their lawsuit in exchange for an amount covering their legal fees. That means they’re stuck with repairs totaling $180,000.
Their wounds remain raw enough that they yearn to tell the world their story — and, yet, they fear reprisals. So they sit on their porch — which tilts three inches north toward the nearest longwall panel — shaking their heads, staring at records from their failed case.
“We’re furious,” the woman seethes, blacking out whole paragraphs before showing me. “All we wanted was the money for the damages.” Her husband interjects: “Now the damages are our nightmare, but we’re not allowed to talk about them.”
No one knows the industry’s hardball legal tactics better than the Walkers. They’ve requested pseudonyms because of that confidentiality clause, and because they don’t wish to give the coal company a reason to come after them — it already has once. Nicknamed the “apply lady,” Ellen looks the part—her strawberry-blonde hair matching her freckles, her candy-apple shorts matching her shirt. She and Ed, a strong-willed, rugged man with a shock of white hair, sit before their historic log home and ruminate about their lives, postmining. They’ve lived on the farm for 45 years, raising four kids, helping to raise seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, and have known hard luck. In 1988, Ed developed a staph infection that would put him in a hospital for 45 days. Three years later, a raging fire wiped out two of their barns. For the Walkers, though, the hardest luck has come by way of the longwall machine.
Their legal battle seems a cautionary tale. In 2005, freshly spurned by the DEP, they appealed to the environmental court. Talk of settlement eventually ensued. The Walkers say that they asked for almost $1 million to fix their house, two barns, a fruit stand, the two irrigation sources, as well as land cracks. Forget all those years of lost profits. The coal company countered with hundreds of thousands less, but even that reduced figure would get whittled down during a visit to the farm by the judge and company attorneys. Ostensibly, the group had come to see the damages; unbeknownst to the Walkers, it turned into a negotiation session. They later discovered that their lawyer had agreed to an even smaller amount. Insulted — “We were screwed, blued, and tattooed,” is how Ellen puts it — the couple refused to sign the papers. That’s when the company would get tough.
In the fall of 2006, it dragged the Walkers into court in an attempt to force their signatures on the proposed settlement. Its attorney filed a six-page motion arguing that the couple’s lawyer “had full authority” to represent them, and that the proposal to which the lawyer consented “constitutes a valid, enforceable agreement.” The judge disagreed, dismissing the petition. Yet the Walkers’ victory would be short-lived. Despite a new lawyer, they settled for what Ellen describes as “a very low” five figures, less than a miner’s $55,000 average wages. Not only did the settlement absolve the company of liability for structural damages, but also for the pending appeals on the couple’s water complaints. Now, the Walkers are in debt from legal fees.
“After all we’ve been through,” Ellen says, as she and Ed walk in their trimmed gardens, “we’ve just lost heart.”
Consol executives readily admit their company offers pre-mining agreements and settlement deals to landowners, which, they stress, it had initiated long before Act 54. To hear them tell it, Consol’s agents handle property owners on a case-by-case basis, offering them options that best address their concerns, building a cooperative relationship. “The goal is not to create a bunch of disgruntled people,” Hoffman says. “That has no benefit to the company. We’re trying to do the right thing within the context of getting our coal.” Oftentimes, they note, the process becomes “emotional” for landowners, who can take it out on the frontline agents. “You get a lot of people’s frustration and anger,” says Pat Wildeman, Consol’s manager for land operations. “They’re mad at the coal company, and we feel it.” His agents always treat people just as they’d want to be treated, he adds: “We believe we’re acting responsibly.” Just because mining dominates the region, representatives of the industry argue, doesn’t mean that it’s responsible for everything that can go wrong on a piece of property. Hoffman relays an anecdote about a woman who’d contacted him not long ago, “in tears, divorced, with a small child at home.” She informed him that she’d lost her well. When Consol’s agents investigated, they discovered that the pump had simply gone dry. They replaced it anyway. “We did it just to do it,” he says. “We’re not the evil empire. We live here, too, and we recognize that we’re in a destructive business.” He later suggests that citizens who fault the way Consol does business can have ulterior motives. “There are those whose only interest is for us to go away,” he says, “and that’s clearly not happening.”
Beyond these individual battles, the industry has worked hard to neutralize its critics. Its self-described “voice” — FORCE — represents a backlash against the coalfield-justice movement. Created in 2002, the nonprofit grew out of a desire to counteract all the antilongwall criticism that was capturing press attention. Says Rainone, of FORCE: “We wanted to get our message out. There were a lot of people who were negative about longwall mining . . . but they never wanted to indicate that they were taken care of. There are laws to protect homeowners, and the industry has to abide by the laws—and they do. But people were out there making accusations and claims. We felt the industry needed to have someone out there to support it.”
Rainone describes FORCE’s mission as spreading the good word about the industry — making sure people know that it powers 55 percent of the state’s electricity, for example. In tax forms, the organization says that its purpose is to provide “safety, financial, and industry standards information” to its 10,000 members — coal executives, miners, contractors, and their families. But it’s hard to tell how that goal is carried out; in its 2005 fiscal year, FORCE reported gross receipts from “membership” ($78,000), a “golf outing” ($40,000), and a “banquet” ($65,000)—the last two annual events catering to politicians. Clearly, the group takes its advocacy seriously. In August 2007, spotted a full-page FORCE advertisement in the Observer-Reporter, the newspaper of record for Greene and Washington counties, touting: “Coal, Pennsylvania’s #1 Fuel for Electricity. Now Clean and Green.” That message could be found plastered on billboards along I-79, as well as at the King Coal Show. Even in the far western reaches of Greene County, in a tiny diner, I stumbled on a FORCE ad on the placemats, featuring a crossword puzzle on the “biproducts [sic] of coal,” as well as the FORCE logo and the words: “Support Coal for Clean Energy and USA Jobs.”
If the propaganda doesn’t work, King Coal has other ways to muffle opposition. Consider Finch, the Morris Township supervisor who’s decried the mammoth Bailey and Enlow Fork mines. At 50, he resembles the Marlboro Man as he drives his pickup truck, puffing away on Wild West cigars. He lives in the verdant village of Prosperity, running a horse stable, atop a ridge that gives him a bird’s-eye view of the site where Consol aims to build a new coalpreparation plant for the mines. Spanning 11 miles, Bailey and Enlow Fork surround Morris — Bailey is southwest; Enlow Fork, northeast — and inch closer yearly. Finch has fought their encroachment on behalf of residents, writing heated letters to the editor, soliciting Buchele’s clinic to review Consol’s permit applications — alone among his colleagues on the board of supervisors. “It has a lot of negative impacts on you,” he says. Finch, who’s a mechanic for a mine-shaft contractor, explains, “I work in the coal industry . . . and I’m out there amongst people who are just not that friendly.”
Yet miners weren’t the ones who would silence Finch. Remember that $150,000 that Consol gave to the Morris fire department? The first check came in the summer of 2006, just as Finch was expressing his blistering dissent. At a July 2006 hearing on a permit to add 7,000 acres to the Bailey and Enlow Fork mines, he bumped into an aide to House leader DeWeese, who’d scribbled his name on paper. When Finch asked why, he got what he calls “a lame answer.” So on July 24, he fired off a letter to the editor, asking hard questions about DeWeese’s relationship to the coal industry, questions like this:
Rep. Bill DeWeese does not represent a single individual in the three municipalities in Washington County overlying this coal mining application. Why are you here? And why do you have my number? Could it be to find out who is stirring up all the bees? Could it be to find out who’s been biting at the heels of one of your biggest benefactors?
The letter doesn’t mention Consol, but it must have annoyed company executives. Within days of the publication of an edited version, in September, Finch was informed that the company was withholding its funding for the rescue vehicle because, as he was told, “upper management is upset at a supervisor’s letter.” When company executives read the letter to the editor, they interpreted it as a direct attack. “I couldn’t believe the allegations he was making in that letter,” explains Cerenzia, of Consol, such as the charge that mining interests had effectively paid off DeWeese. Cerenzia says he was stunned by the letter because, just months earlier, Finch and his fellow supervisors had sought a more cooperative relationship with the firm. “Then I open up the newspaper,” he recalls. “I called up the township, and I said: ‘You want a good-faith effort? You want money, and then you publicly badmouth us.’”
Finch later met with Consol executives behind closed doors, where he says they’d float a kind of political blackmail: Keep your mouth shut, and the fire department will get its money. “I had to agree not to say anything critical publicly,” Finch says. Soon after he’d agreed, the fire department received the first of five $30,000 checks. Cerenzia refutes the idea that Consol muzzled Finch in any way — “It’s not like we restricted him from saying anything,” he says — yet he acknowledges that Consol viewed the letter as the antithesis of cooperation. “We had a meeting and I read him the riot act,” Cerenzia says. “I said, ‘You can’t have it both ways . . . you can’t on the one hand tell us you want a cooperative relationship and then, on the other, make [baseless] accusations about us.’” Consol can take legitimate criticism from public officials, Cerenzia insists. “But if it’s an accusation without any evidence to support it . . . how is a company supposed to respond?”
Finch, meanwhile, has kept quiet for more than two years — until now. “I’ve been living with that and I can’t live with that no more,” he confides. “I don’t care if I’m speaking negatively. I’m speaking truthfully and … sometimes, the truth hurts.”
The truth about the coalfields battles is that, sometimes, David wins. People like Foley have succeeded by seizing control of their dilapidated homes. In 1999, while logging all that longwall wreckage, she sold her house to Consol on one condition: that she could buy it back after the Dilworth Mine shuttered for good. She got $368,000 for the residence, and lived amid its yawning cracks for seven years, rent-free. In December 2006, she exercised the buyback — for $125,000. People like McGinnis, meanwhile, have come out ahead by funneling their resources into legal action. His property is about as upper-crust as it gets, boasting such creature comforts as a pool, a Jacuzzi, and an outdoor bar. When Consol tried to buy it — or entice him with a $50,000 pre-mining check — he refused. “I didn’t need the money,” McGinnis says. He could afford to not only hire experts, but also fix the direst longwall damages, forking out $50,000 so his family could live in the crooked dwelling until the DEP would rule in his favor.
But what did these victors win? Near-condemned houses and lives consumed by repairs? It’s a minor victory, at best, one that Foley struggles not to regret. She sold her house to Consol for $57,000 less than what she’d sunk into its purchase and restoration. Now, she has to spend another $258,000 to piece it back together again. “Who do you think is the winner?” she asks, answering: “It sure as hell is not me.” And since McGinnis has appealed his failed water complaint to the environmental court in October 2007, he’s up against Consol and the DEP. Their attorneys file joint motions in court, performing what he calls “tricks.” It’s bad enough that DEP officials have denied harm to his pond, but now Consol is arguing that McGinnis refused to let its contractors onto his property to survey his water before the mining—an act that would automatically release the company, and one that McGinnis vigorously denies. By January, McGinnis was estimating that he’d have to spend $50,000 just on the initial legal work in his appeal; “I don’t know if my case is even winnable,” he’s told me. Ultimately, these victors haven’t won anything like the average $39 a ton that Consol has made off the coal. Which speaks to why landowners can’t really compete: The mines cover repair costs and still yield top dollar. In 2006, Consol reported coal-sale revenues of $2.69 million; Foundation, $1.44 million.
“It all boils down to this,” says Murray Williams, rubbing his thumb and forefinger as if handling a dollar bill. He and his wife, Laurine, the Waynesburg couple who fought Foundation for a decade, could be in court today over their cracked pond. But they’ve had enough. They engaged in a high-profile effort to try to save their historic home — one that the DEP could have spared from the longwall machine under preservation laws. Once Foundation claimed that it would lose $4.1 million if it couldn’t extract the million tons of coal under their farm, however, the DEP obliged. “It isn’t love that makes the world go around,” Murray says, dryly. “It’s money.”
“Even if you can afford an attorney,” adds Laurine, who hired a lawyer, as well as an engineer and a geologist, “the coal company can afford 24 more.”
Maybe this explains why so many folks in the coalfields take longwall damage in stride, as if it only warrants a shrug. Maybe it explains the resignation — the ‘You can’t win’ attitude — that prevails even among those who’ve endured lasting destruction. Jean Beame, a polite woman who lives beside Ken Hupp, in Amwell, owns a four-year-old dwelling that, because of Mine 84’s longwall mining in March 2006, slopes sideways 13 inches from the front porch to the back bedroom. Now, Beame can’t set a vitamin pill or a lipstick tube on her countertops without the objects rolling away. She admits that the situation annoys her, yet seems sanguine about it. “We got our money and we were satisfied,” she says. Over in South Strabane, a few miles to the north, Fred and Becky Ricker have given up on their water woes before getting started. Since Mine 84’s whirling wonder arrived five years ago, the couple has had no permanent water supply. In October 2002, they lost their 156-foot well the week they discovered a 400-foot-long subsidence crack in their field. Consol erected a water buffalo while trying to replace their source — drilling a deeper well, installing a 2,500-gallon coyote tank. Yet the Rickers present photo after photo of the tank’s rusty-brown filter and its cloudy-orange flow. Not long ago, they found out their water exceeds safe drinking limits for what the DEP terms “dissolved solids, chloride, and total coliform.” Although Act 54 mandates that coal companies restore depleted sources in three years — or buy the property — the Rickers see no point in filing a complaint with the state. DEP officials have told them the legal deadline doesn’t apply in their case, they say, and after losing their first complaint on structural damages, they’ve pretty much thrown in the towel.
“It’s these little aggravations that, when you add them up, are a lot of frustration. It gets to be . . .” Becky says, holding up her fists near her ears, as if pulling her hair.
“It’s just too overwhelming,” Fred adds, “and you feel you have nowhere to turn.”
For some landowners, it’s been ingrained in their heads that the industry can do no wrong. That’s what they heard growing up, as their parents and grandparents toiled in area mines, and that’s what haunts them today. After clashing with Consol for five years, Kim Jones, the coal miner’s daughter, remains racked by guilt, feeling an allegiance to the industry on the one hand and, on the other, betrayed by it. She still remembers the smell of her father’s lunch-bucket, stinking from sulfur, after his shifts at the now-defunct Maple Creek Mine. As a kid, she was taught that the coal company took care of miners, so she figured it’d do the same with her farm. She’s experienced a rude awakening: Consol cut down her trees, worth $15,000, and plugged her free gas wells without paying her a cent; then, it took her well water and is now proposing to pay her $346 a year for 20 years as compensation — even though her annual city-water bill is $542. Similar injustices have torn a former coal miner from Washington County who worked at Mine 84 for 23 years and who spoke on condition of anonymity. The retiree spent most of his career hanging wires inside longwall panels. On the job, he overlooked the machine’s destruction. “When you’re a miner,” he says, “you know you’re going under a neighbor or a friend, but what can you do?” At home, he cannot brush off the ruin so easily. Since his old employer undermined his land in 2004, he empathizes with the little guy in a way coal executives don’t. Often the lone miner at forums, he sees longwall victims as “lost souls” whose plight would make any compassionate person feel bad. He’s even battled Consol over damages totaling $200,000; the company has offered him $80,000. “They’re just greedy pigs. Yes, I made a decent living off the industry,” the miner admits, as if violating an unspoken code, “but I still think that’s how they treat people.”
In many ways, the whole region has capitulated to King Coal. More and more residents are selling out to the coal companies rather than stick around for the longwall fallout. In Washington County, for instance, Consol has become one of the largest landlords, spending $30.6 million on land acquisitions near its mines over the past seven years. It’s a trend on the rise: In 2006, the company purchased 28 properties for $10 million, compared with one for $76,060 in 2001. Currently, Consol owns 499 properties worth $122 billion, including 254 farms and residences above Enlow Fork and 106 above Mine 84. (Greene County has no electronic records on file with the state’s Registrar of Deeds.) It’s a trend in the industry’s favor, too: Coal companies don’t have to fix subsidence damage on land they own. Consol’s Hoffman says his company often repairs properties in order to rent them. But, he says, “It’s true if we own a house it’s more convenient for us.”
Cruising around the sunken landscape in Greene County, Harold Van Druff, the Kirby farmer, points out what he calls “the wasteland” — the remains of houses bought and then bulldozed by Foundation. Just beyond his farm lie the soppy, cattail-infested pastures that once boasted beautiful farmhouses; all were leveled to make way for coal-slate piles and conveyor belts. Over near Morris, 24 miles northeast, Supervisor Finch passes one vacant residence after another owned by Consol, resembling the days of industry-owned villages in the 1800s. Some dwellings sit destroyed—decks drooped, bricks busted—while others have been reduced to their foundations.
“This is a nice place to live,” Finch says, driving on a country road where Consol has torn down a half dozen or so homes, “but that’s changing.” Gone are the neighbors who’ve helped fix wind-whipped barns or find runaway dogs, and the farmers who’ve spread free fertilizer or doled out equipment advice. Along this road, everyone has chosen to leave the longwall hassles behind.
Even feisty activists have become resigned to their fate. Aimee Erickson, of the Ten Mile Protection Network, also works for a nationwide network of 19 grass-roots and environmental groups known as the Citizens Coal Council. Her house, which serves as its headquarters, features defiant slogans like: “They May Own the Coal. But They Don’t Own the Water.” At 55, with blonde curls framing a birdlike face, she comes across as wholly committed to the cause—“It’s like good versus evil,” she’s said. Erickson first discovered Mine 84’s intent to undermine her Amwell property in 2002, when a notice was posted on the front door of her trailer. At the time, she’d never heard of the longwall machine. One of eight kids, she grew up near room-and-pillar mines and still remembers her mother warning her about abandoned shafts. But longwall mining? She soon got educated, researching the method, calling state officials, organizing neighbors.
Now, like so many in the coalfields, she’s hamstrung by the system. She doesn’t have the resources to avail the Act 54 legal process to protect her double-wide trailer — the first home she bought on her own — so she’s negotiated with Consol. Selling wasn’t an option after all her efforts to upgrade the one-acre plot, erecting a façade on the trailer, trying to landscape the field. Yet when the company held out a $21,000 pre-mining check in March 2007, she figured she didn’t have much choice but to sign on the dotted line—and, in her words, “sign away my right to complain to the state.” She knows her actions betray the movement. Even her teenage son’s given her a hard time.
“I’ve felt bad,” Erickson says. “But I cannot afford to hire an attorney to fight this battle for years and years.”
And so, she’s been undermined in every sense of the word. Crushed by King Coal, Erickson has been flicked away like a gnat, left to deal with its destruction on its terms. For much of 2007, she readied herself for the longwaller, surveying neighbors who’d stayed, pushing Consol to mitigate her trailer, which sits on 36 thin piers. An engineer friend predicted it would drop a foot, buckling the roof and bending the walls. As she waited for the steel shearer to slice toward her, Erickson grappled with the same nightmare, “the kind where you’re in your house and it’s falling apart.” At every delay, she clung to hints of hope. The latest was Consol’s September 7, 2007 announcement that it would “indefinitely idle” Mine 84 not long after removing the 8B panel, over which Erickson’s trailer stands.
“I am hoping to God it shuts down before it gets to my house,” she wrote me in an e-mail, dated October 16, 2007, as the machine was chewing the coal 700 feet away. By then, she’d been anticipating its arrival for three months, mulling possibilities in her mind. What am I going to do when it comes? Should I be here? What if I lose my water? What if my land sinks and turns into a swamp? Will I have anything left?
Sixteen days later, on November 1, she got the dreaded call from Consol. “They started mining under your house,” a company agent told Erickson, assuring her that an employee would be checking on her property daily.
“I haven’t seen anyone,” Erickson informs me, four days later. She figures Consol has offered another empty promise — it never did that mitigation work. On this brisk autumn day, the trailer has tilted enough to make you dizzy walking across the floor. Earlier, stepping into the shower, Erickson felt “gravity pull you to one side.” Now, she places a level on her kitchen countertop; it shows the house leaning toward the longwall panel. There are other signs of damage. Twenty-four hours after the machine had arrived, she spotted flakes on the carpet — pieces of gypsum falling from the ceiling. Now, that crack has widened and splintered into about a half dozen. Outside, hairline cracks spread and grow around nearly every window.
“These weren’t there last night,” Erickson mutters, pointing out cracks in the façade. She’s trying not to become “too obsessive” about the damage, she says. But she found herself in the pitch black last night, donning a flashlight, measuring the crevices. Kicking at one such crevice now, she says, “This wasn’t here.” Neither were the five cracks forming below the kitchen window. Or the piece of roof littering the yard.
Sizing up the damage so far, Erickson stands beside the water buffalo in her yard, the same giant tank that decorates so many front lawns here. It arrived, like clockwork, just days before the longwall machine did. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is all about the bottom line and profit,’” she says, with a sigh. Reflecting on her activism, she cannot help but see the irony. “To fight this battle for six years and now, here we go, they’re undermining my own house,” she adds, shaking her head in disbelief. “I’ve devoted blood, sweat, and tears to this issue. And, now, look at me.”
Research for this article provided by Sarah Laskow.
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