Mark Dowie on Michael Shnayerson's 'Coal River'
If you’ve mastered Google Earth, or one of its satellite imaging imitators, take a low-altitude flight over the southwestern reaches of West Virginia. It’s quite a sight. All those massive gray patches on that lush green background are mountaintop coal mines. To bare the coal for stripping, forest cover has been clear-cut and topsoil bulldozed off into nearby hollows and stream beds. Once bared, coal seams are blasted open with the same explosive Timothy McVeigh used to level the Oklahoma City federal building. Then a 20-story dragline is constructed on site and put to work scooping 100-ton shovels full of coal that are hauled off to a railhead in trucks that on busy mining days seem to make up about half the vehicles on the state’s highways. In short order the mountain is leveled. To obtain the resource that fuels half the nation’s power plants, as cheaply as possible, 1.5 million acres of Appalachian land have been stripped of all life, mined and left to erode sludge into more than 700 miles of once healthy streams.
“It would be hard to imagine a more ill-advised course of action than ruining large swaths of land to get coal, and then poisoning the atmosphere with the gases from burning it.” But that is exactly what the federal government, the Army Corps of Engineers and the environmental protection agencies of five East Coast states now encourage.
So wrote reporter Michael Shnayerson in the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. There he published a blockbuster investigation of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, where the practice has become commonplace, accepted as the “new and improved” way to mine coal, safer by far for the few miners who remain employed but disastrous for the environment. Now Shnayerson has spun the story up into a trenchant 300-page book called “Coal River,” in which he takes a harder, longer look at how blasting the tops off mountains and filling steams with mine waste became the core of our national energy plan.
“Coal River” is a Shakespearean drama played out in a Dickensian setting. The story’s two antagonists, a boy and a brute, are equally compelling in their differing ways. Shnayerson’s protagonist is a tenacious young lawyer named Joe Lovett, who despite a stinging series of defeats and setbacks, in one court after another, finally prevails against the perfect adversary, Don Blankenship, chairman and CEO of Massey Energy.
If you’re tired of labor unions, environmentalists, occupational health bureaucrats and the weeping wives of dead coal miners, you do what Don Blankenship did. You close underground coal mines, fire all union miners, scrape the soil and forests off mountains, blow their tops off and hire back a few nonunion miners to scoop and haul the coal to market.
Blankenship is a living caricature of corporate venality, a pathetic, lonely, power-crazed scoundrel who could teach advance courses in union busting, political manipulation, plutocracy and environmental neglect, and would happily do so were he not so busy dreaming up ways to screw injured miners out of workmen’s compensation or shift a property line so he can place a coal silo a few hundred feet closer to an elementary school.
Lovett, who works tirelessly for a nonprofit called the Appalachian Center for Economy & Environment, is an appealing hero, and likeable, but Blankenship, a self-described “radical populist” who seeks to remove every last liberal judge from the bench, to overturn the entire West Virginia Legislature and rid the world of labor unions, but also fights to have a 6 percent sales tax removed from food, is a more nuanced and intriguing character. In fact in some respects he carries the book, saving it from the tedium of trial preparation and courtroom bantering.
Civil law proceedings are difficult to report in a compelling manner, and hard to read. Few book authors have mastered the art of keeping readers enthralled through a single case or a long-term litigative campaign. Jonathan Harr did so in “A Civil Action,” an almost flawless account of one town’s battle against a well polluter. The art, mastered by Harr, is to deftly combine legal drama with compelling personal narrative. Shnayerson attempts this method and almost succeeds.
In his defense it must be said that none of his characters possess the tragic flaws or comedic tendencies of “Civil Action’s” Jan Schlichtmann. And lacking the one-town, one-villain advantage of the Woburn, Mass., saga, Shnayerson is confronted with a statewide eco-atrocity that is spreading throughout the entire Appalachian region, a tale with many heroes and many villains. He just picked two of the best and made a book of them.
And it’s an emotional challenge, even for the best of authors, to write about rank ecological destruction, the ability of powerful corporados to buy justice, the perverse anti-environmentalism of an entire federal administration and the near futility of litigating against rapacious industries, their defenders and their government enablers. It’s simply depressing. Perhaps it’s why we crave heroic accounts of truly good people — “a few brave Americans” — working hard to produce justice and protect the planet. Thus Joe Lovett will stay with any reader of “Coal River.” But so will Judy Bonds, the coal miner’s daughter who mobilizes a whole community to protect itself from the ravages of King Coal, and even more so Ed Wiley.
Wiley, a gangly, injured miner, walks 455 miles alone from Charleston to Washington to meet with Sen. Robert Byrd in search of $5 million to relocate a school threatened by a nearby mountaintop mine. Byrd sees him, tells him he could build a $5-million road in a heartbeat, but can’t promise a school. After saying he will do what he can, the eight-term senator closes the meeting with a prayer for the besotted people of his coal-weary state. It’s the first time any of his aides have seen him pray, and one senses that the man who has relied for most of his political career on the power and wealth of King Coal has had enough.
Joe Lovett’s courtroom triumph over the Army Corps of Engineers is heartening but tenuous. Yes, the corps is ordered to stop issuing permits to scofflaw mining firms like Massey. But every other case that Lovett wins is overturned in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. So we are left with a tentative victory, accompanied by the scraping sound of draglines on hundreds of mountaintops up and down the Appalachians, the roar of gigantic coal trucks on West Virginia highways, a government indentured to King Coal and an atmosphere that may be terminally diseased. It’s hardly a satisfactory ending.
Schnayerson’s reporting is first-rate, but his book is illogically sequenced, and a potentially gripping narrative is too often interrupted, either by distracting and tedious tangents, incomprehensible mining jargon or unwarranted, eye-glazing legal and technical details. And at times the author seems remarkably naive, almost wide-eyed in amazement about what is, after all, only one small part of a massive assault on the ecological health of his planet. One wonders at times where he’s been, or what he was covering before he discovered the great American coal scandal. But for anyone curious about the inside story behind one of America’s most dramatic environmental battles — “America destroying America itself ” — or desperate for inspiration and encouragement in fighting intractable battles against indomitable foes, “Coal River” is very much worth the effort.
Mark Dowie is the author of several books, including “Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century.”