Sunday, October 27, 2013

Community Lost: Mountaintop Removal and Historic Mountain Cemeteries

Posted by James Maples and Elizabeth East, LINDYTOWN WV -- A small historic mountain cemetery sits quietly in a valley below a mountaintop removal site. Like most parts of West Virginia’s wilderness, this area once belonged to the commons, a shared space tended by Appalachia’s communities and their members.  Their responsibilities included taking care of the many small historic mountain cemeteries (or HMCs) spread across Appalachia’s valleys, hillsides, and mountaintops; spaces that notably overlap with valuable coal deposits. Today, few community members (and even fewer communities) remain to tend HMCs in West Virginia’s deep forests.  Instead, HMCs share the space with mountaintop removal (or MTR) activity, a high-impact but low-cost method of coal extraction. Sadly, MTR’s use of space is antithetical with Appalachian culture and the presence of cemeteries.  

Maria Gunnoe is no stranger to the realities of MTR. Her cultural and family ties to the region go back generations before MTR’s first appearance in the 1970s.  In 2000, MTR activity began blasting on a ridge near her family home.  Subsequent blasts led to flooding that destroyed her family homestead and poisoned her well.   Maria quickly points to MTR’s many untold costs: a toxic biosphere, erosion, flooding, mountain loss, and the slow death of an entire way of life. As the commons is transformed from a cultural, shared space to a profitable, privatized space by MTR activity, Appalachian communities are forever changed, physically and culturally.

Danny Cook, a native West Virginian cemetery activist, recounts the story of how MTR nearly destroyed three of his family’s HMCs on Cook Mountain, not far from Lindytown.  In 2010, MTR activity came within a few hundred feet of the three HMCs, destabilizing the site in the process and damaging roads leading up to the space.  Community members and activists rallied to protect the cemeteries, including marking each HMC with a 100 foot no-mining perimeter (as allowed by state law) and signage visible from atop a bulldozer.  However, physically accessing the space remains difficult as mining activity has privatized and even destroyed roads leading to the site.  Visitors must also obtain permission from coal company operators before visiting, further isolating HMCs from the community and controlling the use of space. 

Other cemeteries have been less lucky than the Cook family cemeteries.  For example, MTR activity extensively damaged Stover Cemetery on Kayford Mountain when a bulldozer drove through the cemetery.  Mining activity also undercut the cemetery’s foundation, causing part of the cemetery to fall into the ravine below. Family, friends, and activists now maintain a vigil over what remains of Stover, as well as nearby Stanley Cemetery, in hopes of protecting these cultural spaces from further damage.  

Mountain Top Removal-- Photograph from an article about MTR in  the Los Angeles Times

HMCs are a historical and cultural part of Appalachian communities. Webb Cemetery holds the remains of the founders of West Virginian communities like Twilight, James Creek, and nearby Lindytown. Appalachian burial mores guided community members to bury their dead in the commons where the graves would be tended in perpetuity. They picked valley hillsides and mountain tops as cemetery locations because they are attached to the community as sacred spaces for reconnection and recollection.  For example, community members held family gatherings on cemetery grounds each year. They cleaned and decorated the site while also reconnecting with friends and loved ones both present and passed.  
But lack of employment options and life opportunities led many families to leave small communities like Lindytown to find work outside the coal mines in the 1950’s, leaving behind HMCs that had been maintained for ages to slowly blend into the wilderness.  Aging community members who remained were unable to continue tending the commons in the rough landscape; younger generations were not always willing (or even present) to take up the cause.  Still other community members have been actively removed by MTR companies, further separating the ties between community and cultural space. 

Back in Lindytown, MTR activity overlooks what remains of a once vibrant cultural space. In December 2008, Massey Energy Company (through its subsidiary, Ceres Land Company) began purchasing or leasing properties and homes in Lindytown.  Massey’s short-term plan was to separate residents from MTR activity after many complaints about frequent blasting.  However, Massey’s less-discussed long-term plan was to use Lindytown as a valley fill site: a place used to store the debris created by MTR activity.  Even while a few residents held out, Massey arranged to let local firefighters burn the purchased houses to the ground as training. In a short time, the community space was transformed into a profitable space for MTR activity. In 2012, Massey Coal bulldozed almost the entire valley, including the highly-visible HMC shown in the very first picture in this photo essay.  This HMC, containing an entire family who died in a house fire in Lindytown, is now gone. Eventually, all of Lindytown will be under the displaced mountainside, holding the remains of MTR activity. The same goes for other valley fill sites, such as Packsville, West Virginia, which holds at least two other cemeteries. As the entire community is gone, there is no one left to see what happens to HMCs and the wilderness space becomes invisible to outsiders.   

The low rumble of trains and the sharp blast of the engineer’s whistle is a constant reminder of the power of coal interests in the region. Yet, the spatially-removed nature of MTR activity allows mining activity to occur almost invisibly with very little discussion.  Few outsiders can physically visit MTR sites to understand its horror, allowing this information to remain hidden.  Historically, coal companies have utilized the remote location of coal mining activity to control information coming in and out of the coal fields, fomenting a pro-coal agenda in the region. Today, that control continues, robust and strong.  Extensive support and dependence on coal mining jobs limits discussing MTR’s many risks to the natural environment, HMCs, and communities dotted in the hollers of West Virginia. 

James N. Maples is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Elizabeth A. East is a Doctoral student in Sociology at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Feel free to contact James for more information about MTR at

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