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Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia

By Kris Maher

Scribner, 2021

In 2012, I spent a few days in Nitro, West Virgina, for the Wall Street Journal, reporting on a settlement the town had won from Monsanto for its pollution of local groundwater while making Agent Orange for the U.S. military. I expected rage against the corporation. Instead what I found was a longing for the days of smoke and particulates. That stinky air? To people in Nitro, that was the smell of jobs. 

The tension between small town employment and its deadly costs, and consequent tragedy, are central to Kris Maher’s important and gripping new book, Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia, the saga of mining communities in southern West Virginia in the early years of this century fighting coal company Massey Energy and its titanic boss Don Blankenship, for clean water. 

For Maher, a Pittsburgh-based former colleague of mine at the Wall Street Journal, the story he tells is “a distillation of what’s happened in other parts of the country with small towns,” he told me in an interview. “But it’s more evident here because you only had the coal industry and you never had some other industries come in and replace it. There’s more of a focus on one specific industry, and its impact.”

Kris Maher (Photo submitted)

To be sure, the sprawling coal fields of southern West Virginia are unique – a wild, dramatic, rural place of hollows and tight communities, where mining has seemingly been the only path to prosperity. 

In the 1980s, a coal mining company called Rawl Sales&Processing, controlled by Massey, in Mingo County, started injecting waste from active mines into abandoned mines which then leaked into the water supply of local towns. 

The result, over the following decades, was a catastrophic and criminal poisoning of people’s home water supplies. Creeks flooded with coal slurry. Residents experienced a plague of physical ailments. One boy woke up with pus coming out of his penis. 

The town’s, and Maher’s hero, is Kevin Thompson, a hard-charging West Virginia lawyer with a high sense of outrage who in 2003 filed a class action lawsuit against Massey and Rawl, both under the control of a Don Blankenship. In the U.S., where regulations can be light, it often takes a smart lawyer exploiting the legal system to hold companies to account. 

Blankenship is a complicated villain who insisted on living, among the people, in Mingo County. But he could also be detached, building a special, unpolluted water line to his house, and traveling around in an armored car during labor disputes. The coal baron grew up in Mingo County, and although his childhood was not particularly destitute, he liked to emphasize his tough roots. “I know what it is to be poor, I know what it is to be rich,” he once said. He was a math genius, with college-level abilities in third grade. 

Although soft-spoken, Blankenship rode his accounting skills to the top of Massey Energy, where he was chairman and CEO until 2010, when the mine at Upper Big Branch exploded killing 29 miners. Blankenship later served a year in prison for his negligence. When he got out, undaunted, he ran for Senate in 2018 and lost. And in 2020 he ran for president as the candidate of the Constitution Party. 

Thompson and Blankenship inherit a legacy of conflict that goes back over a century, a story Maher commands to rich effect. Coal mining came to West Virginia in the middle of the 19th century. Before then, it was “the edge of the frontier for white people, drawing trappers and settlers seeking to build a place to build a rough existence farming, harvesting timber, and distilling whiskey beyond the reach of tax collectors.”

 By 1920, “the valley reflected the modern industrial world, and the fight was between miners and the companies that profited from their labor.”

In the Matewan massacre of 1920, union-busting detectives and coal miners shot it out in a battle that left seven detectives, two miners, and the mayor, dead. A year later, in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the U.S. Army sent in 26th Infantry Division troops, and military planes patrolled the area, some even dropping homemade bombs. 

Over time, mining became safer. In 1920, there were 784,000 coal miners in the U.S. In the 20 years prior, almost 50,000 had perished in accidents, mostly explosions, a dismal safety record that improved throughout the century. 

But environmental disasters persisted. In October 2000, a Massey impoundment in Kentucky ruptured, dumping over 300 million gallons of coal slurry out the side of a hill, polluting and killing fish over hundreds of miles of streams. In one neighborhood, the sludge went as high as a basketball hoop. Massey called the accident an “act of God.”

At the same time, the coal industry could generate impressive wealth. In the mid-1920s, the town of Willamson approved a five-storey hotel with 116 rooms with private baths, electric elevators, a cut-glass chandelier in the main ballroom, and a top-flight restaurant. 

And the region remains haunted by the Hatfield-McCoy feud of the 1870s and 1880s. Blankenship’s mother, it turns out, is a McCoy. 

When Thomson filed the lawsuit in 2004, he had truth on his side. In the mid-1980s, “the company had pumped more than 20 million gallons of slurry into the mountains in most months, and over time the rate increased to 600 gallons per minute and then 750 gallons per minute.” And the people surveyed by Thomspon had a long list of health problems. Roughly half had bouts of diarrhea. They also suffered from migraines, urinary tract infections, memory problems, muscle tremors, and heart disease. 

The fight is also emblematic of the battle over clean water that has consumed other parts of the country. “In a lot of small towns in West Virginia, they always give you bottled water,” Maher told me. 

Small towns often have water problems, for all kinds of issues. “You have chemicals, and there’s also farm runoff for pesticides, but also pharmaceuticals are an issue,” said Maher, who covered the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, for the Journal. “Pharmaceuticals just come out in the wastewater and they’re not treated, they’re not captured, like at wastewater treatment plants, and they end up in rivers.”

Maher told me his book is in part a refutation of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. “It’s about what people are up against in the region,” he says. “J.D. Vance faults people for not working hard or for not pulling themselves up, but I at least hope that my book shows that there’s just been generations of being kind of under the thumb of the coal industry and you know you’re not starting from the same place as somebody who lives in a city somewhere else.” When your livelihood is tied to a single industry, economic mobility is limited, he said. 

That’s going to have to change because coal is in decline. In 2004, when the lawsuit was filed, coal-generated around half of the electricity in the U.S. In 2020, that number was around 20%. 

I posed the question to Maher about what comes next for communities fading out of the coal business. After all, on dozens of trips to southern West Virginia, he’s come to care about the people he writes about. He pointed to a piece he wrote recently about a lavender farm in Boone County, West Virginia. “The hope is to not rely just on one industry,” he said. People are optimistic about the new infrastructure bill, which has $11.3 billion budgeted for mining land reclamation projects, which will help diversify economies with tourism and small manufacturing in and around the southern coal fields. And many parts of West Virginia still need better broadband, he added. 

In the end, as Maher’s book illustrates, what people in West Virginia crave is what people everywhere need: jobs that don’t stink.

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You can join Kris Maher for the launch of his book Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia on Wednesday, October 13. He’ll be joined by the author of this book review,  John W. Miller, for a conversation. Register Here.