Mr. Future President: Is There a Right to R.I.P.?
Strip-mining destroys trees and pollutes streams. But what if it disturbs the dead? A miner risks his job to organize an Appalachian community.
Looking up at the strip mine on Lone Star Mountain in West Virginia
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis
To: Senators Obama/McCain
From: Betty Dotson-Lewis
Mr. Future President:
I’m sure it is no secret to you that half of this nation’s electricity is generated by coal. The State of West Virginia produced over 161 million tons last year – 68 million of it from strip mining. Coalminers in the Mountain State are working night and day to keep the lights on in America.
But you may not realize, Mr. Future President, just how coal is extracted from our gorgeous mountains or what it is doing to a way of life. My name is Betty Dotson-Lewis. I am from a small coalmining town in West Virginia, and I have seen how it’s done.
Strip mining removes coal lying near the surface, and contour strip mining is used in hilly terrain such as we have in West Virginia. Big movers first shove everything out of the way — trees, bushes, ground moss, ginseng, bee trees, rocks and dirt. The hillside is scraped away, vertically, and pushed over the mountain into the creek or whatever is below. Then big augers go get the black gold. In just one year, Arch Coal Inc.’s Hobet 21 Mine stripped more than 10,000 acres of Boone County.
I would like to take you to a strip mine site ““ Lone Star Mountain on Jones Branch Road, near my home. There, you can see first hand what I am talking about.
Streams and trees and animals are all displaced by strip mining ““ permanently so, if the land isn’t reclaimed as required by the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. But Mr. Future President, I’m not here to debate environmental issues on Lone Star Mountain, not at this time. My purpose is personal. I want to talk about family and Appalachian Mountain traditions ““ death and age-old burial rituals and family cemeteries and a West Virginia coalminer.
This past Labor Day Holiday I revisited Jones Branch Hollow which leads to Lone Star Mountain; it’s located on Rt. 39 about 8 miles below my hometown. Here is what I saw.
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis
At the entrance to the hollow is Salem Branch Church, a picturesque, white country church. Serving as backdrop are steep, rugged hillsides jutting to the sky. A twisty two-lane road and wide creek run past the front of the church. A road to the left leads up Jones Branch Hollow. I stopped to take photos of the church and a wooden one-lane bridge leading to the houses across the creek, then on to the strip mine operation and my destination ““ the Underwood Family Cemetery. My last visit there was two years ago.
I decided to go after reading a story in our local newspaper about one coal miner who’d tried to gain free access to the family cemetery on top of Lone Star Mountain. I spent one whole summer trying to get there. I wanted to take pictures of the cemetery and write a story so that more people would know what was going on with the Underwood Family Cemetery.
One morning I announced at the office I would be going to Lone Star Mountain. Sherri, a co-worker, did not want me going there alone so she decided to go with me. She called her mother, and her mother decided to go as well. So, the three of us set out for Lone Star Mountain after work in my Jeep.
We drove the three or so miles up the paved road of Jones Branch towards the mountain. Houses were on either side of the road. A railroad track transporting coal out of the hollow lay between the creek and road and the houses, a fairly typical coalmining hollow scene.
Coal cars at the base of Lone Star Mountain
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis
Once we arrived at the entrance to the road leading to the Underwood Cemetery, we found a giant Massey’s strip mine operation between us and the Underwood Family Cemetery on top of Lone Star Mountain ““ our destination.
At the entrance of the site, the paved road turned to gravel on the left and dirt on the right. I made a sharp left turn and drove to the guard shack. A speaker box was mounted on a wooden stake near the shack and surveillance cameras were in operation. A high wire security fence was strung across the road leading to the mine. A locked gate crossed the road. When I was close enough to the speaker box I pressed the button and said, “Hi, my name is Betty Lewis. I am from here. Sherri and Helen are with me. We would like to visit the Underwood Family Cemetery.”
A loud voice responded telling us we would have to take the old road straight up the hill on the right; the gravel road required security escorts and none were available.
I backed off the grade and headed towards some semblance of a road. It apparently had been an old wagon road, still gutted with deep ditches on the sides and two little dusty narrow paths leading straight up the mountain. I started up in four-wheel-drive. We soon realized the road was not passable even in my Jeep. We found a spot wide enough to turn, backing up and moving forward a little at time until the Jeep was headed back down the steep incline. Sherri got out to direct my backing up and moving forward. Parking the Jeep, the three of us walked as far up the mountain as possible until it was nearly dark. We did not find the cemetery.
When we started down the mountain, Sherri walked in front of the Jeep backwards with both hands bent at the elbow signaling me to turn my wheels to the left or to the right to avoid burying my Jeep in the deep gullies. Helen leaned out her window. It was a slow trip down Lone Star Mountain.
You know, Mr. Future President, West Virginians are very proud and loyal people. They care the same for their living and their dead. Most Americans have the liberty to visit cemeteries, to bury and honor their dead anytime they feel like it, especially in rural settings such as here in West Virginia, where we are steeped in and committed to our age-old Appalachian mountain customs. But ever since Massey Energy opened its strip mine operation on Twenty Mile through Lone Star Mountain and Jones Branch Hollow, access to the Underwood Family Cemetery has been blocked or very limited.
This seemingly minor problem, a by-product of keeping America’s lights on, was cause enough for one ordinary citizen, one “John Doe,” one vote-casting, blue-collar worker to take on a major coal conglomerate and his employer, Massey Energy.
He organized a meeting at Keslers Cross Lanes Fire Department, announced in our local weekly newspaper, for family, friends and interested parties of loved ones buried in cemeteries on Lone Star Mountain. This coal miner began a personal crusade to gain free access once again to the resting place of so many family members. It was a courageous move.
This man is a union coal miner working on a nonunion strip mine operation up Twenty Mile, on the same site as the family cemetery. This operation is owned by Massey Energy, the largest nonunion coal operation in West Virginia and the same company responsible for blocking the road leading up Lone Star Mountain, site of the Underwood Cemetery. When Massey bought out Beth Energy, the miner’s former employer, a deal was struck allowing fifteen union miners who had worked for Beth Energy, including this man, to remain union under the ownership of Massey. He and his wife are thankful for the union benefits.
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis
One man up against one of the largest coal companies in the U.S. sounds like a story out of a book; you might think, Mr. Future President, that a contract or monetary issue motivated him, but this wasn't so. The conflict was personal, ethical and universal, all at the same time. It was a matter of family — his mother, his father and sister, distant cousins, aunts and uncles. Lone Star Mountain, the same mountain where this miner’s father had grown up, his homeplace, became his father’s final resting place — a common practice in Appalachia.
When the miner began the campaign to gain entrance to the road and free access, the hill was flanked by a guard shack, camera and “No Trespassing Signs.” That is what we saw. The public road beyond the entrance was impassable except with a bulldozer or horse, straight up the two mile dirt road to the top of the mountain. A trip by automobile to the sacred grounds was by Massey Energy escorts only.
The miner who took on this campaign to travel freely to visit his family’s graves is no stranger to tough battles. Following the untimely death of both parents from heart attacks, he and his wife assumed the responsibility of raising five younger children left at home. His father was only 45 when he died, in March 1974, and his mother, age 54, followed in the fall of the same year. His wife’s parents also died early, her mother in her fifties of a stroke and her father, also in his fifties, of a heart attack while coon hunting. The couple took on more siblings to raise.
During this time of struggles and hardships another battle was brewing in this miner’s life ““ his call to the ministry. This miner’s father was a Free Will Baptist Minister and after he was gone, the Lord called this miner to the ministry also, something he had said he would never do. He fought the call and the Lord for about three years and as his wife told me, “He was miserable.” She did not know about this battle. He finally turned himself over to the Lord and is now a Free Will Baptist Preacher.
The movement to gain access to the family cemetery came to a head following the death of the miner’s sister. The family wanted burial in the family cemetery on Lone Star Mountain, so his sister might come to rest near their father and mother and other family members. The only access road leading into the cemetery was controlled by Massey. After crossing the hurdles, the sister was laid to rest but grieving family members were uncomfortable being watched over by guards during the burial ceremony.
Additional stipulations were added: those wishing to gain entrance to the cemetery had to sign in and prove they had a relative buried in the plot or be turned away. Also, each person had to sign a waiver in case of accident. Massey would not be held responsible.
Other relatives were affected by this unusual cemetery protocol. The miner’s cousin told me that when her father was buried there, the family was escorted in by guards and watched over during the sacred service. She said that under normal circumstances, family and friends are allowed to say their goodbyes and leave the grave site before the person is lowered into the dark hole and fresh dirt is piled on, but in this case everyone had to stay until the undertakers were finished burying her father so the guards would only have to make one trip out of the cemetery, escorting the entire burial party. The family felt this was an unusually harsh sight for the small children along.
Appalachian hillside cemetery, in Virginia
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis
Another cousin would often visit her husband’s grave, taking him flowers, talking to him and worshiping there. She wanted to be close to him. All that sacredness came to a sudden halt when Massey extended its strip mine operations through that peaceful hollow; a family cemetery established during the Civil War era is no longer accessible without security escorts to and from the graves.
At least two Purple Heart recipients lie there. Soldiers who fought and gave their lives in World War II were both on the verge of being rooted out of the ground by machinery or blown to bits by mining explosives some 70 years after falling on a distant battlefield and enduring the long ride home to rest in the family cemetery in Jones Branch Hollow on top of Lone Star Mountain.
Dale Hypes, a member of the community of Whitewater where the miner and his wife make their home, is familiar with the graveyard He described it to me as looking like a peeled apple sitting up on its core. The graves are on top of the core with jagged, stripped circles all the way around the parcel of ground where the graves lie. A fence has been erected and guards are on duty. I was told that grieving with dignity is hard when you must be escorted in and out of the fenced area, Massey Security Guards watching every move.
So now this miner’s mom, dad, sister and two uncles decorated with Purple Hearts, his wife’s father and niece and other family members on their way to the Pearly Gates are perched on top of an isolated plot of ground, an apple core left by strip mining on Lone Star Mountain.
Mr. Future President, do you know what coal miners and their families are encountering? Strip-mining coal in Appalachia is destroying our way of life and our way of death.