At the top of Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky, Highway 160 crosses into Virginia and winds between Looney Ridge and Ison Rock Ridge. When it reaches the narrow valley between the two ridges, the road follows Looney Creek through the quiet mountain community of Inman, Va.
Inman consists of a tidy park, a well-kept Baptist church, several brick public housing apartments, and a collection of about 50 modest homes. A forested slope rises steeply on each side of the narrow valley, but the trees along the base of Looney Ridge hide an ugly truth.
Behind this “beauty strip” sprawls a 3,000-acre mountaintop removal coal mine that runs the length of Inman and beyond, carving the top off of Black Mountain.
“Strip mining was controversial in the ‘70s here, but it was in no way as destructive as taking the entire top off of mountains,” says Ben Hooper, president of the community organization Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. He was born in an Inman coal camp house — the community was owned by a coal company until 1976. When he was a child, Looney Creek was still full of fish, but are no fish there now, and the creek is on the federal list of impaired waterways.
The onset of mountaintop removal mining on Looney Ridge in the early 2000s changed life in Inman. Blasting damaged homes and shook pictures off the walls, and toxic dust from the mining operations coated cars and buildings. And then, on an August night in 2004, mine operators widening an access road without a permit dislodged a half-ton boulder that crashed 649 feet down the mountainside and into the home of three-year-old Jeremy Davidson, killing him in his sleep before stopping at the base of his brother’s bed.
The tragedy rallied opponents of mountaintop removal, and spurred the formation of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, based in the nearby town of Appalachia, Va.
In 2007, A&G Coal Corp., which owns the Looney Ridge operation, applied for a permit to mine 1,230 acres on Ison Rock Ridge, located on the other side of Inman. The mine would come as close as 100 yards from the backyards of many residents. Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards led opposition to the permit, and for eight years community members spoke out against the proposal.
The state initially approved the permit in 2010, but the company ran into trouble for water quality violations and bond issues at existing mines that needed to be resolved before the Ison Rock Ridge permit could move forward. In 2013, the state denied the permit for Ison Rock Ridge, after A&G failed to address their outstanding issues. Due in part to pressure from local citizens and from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the state made a final decision to deny the permit in March 2015, and A&G exhausted its appeal options in April 2015.
Yet Ison Rock is not permanently protected. If demand for coal rises, coal companies could apply for new mining permits. And if mountaintop removal ever did begin on Ison Rock Ridge, Ben says, the destruction would shatter Inman’s peace and solitude, and residents would leave.
“A huge percentage of the land in Wise County are not held by private citizens but actually large landholding companies, and many of them will lease this land out to the coal companies,” says Matt Hepler, an Inman resident who works with SAMS. “The fight’s never going to be completely over as long as [the outside companies are] owning this land.”
Ben Hooper says the group will stay vigilant. “We’re just not going to let another ridge — and one of the few that we have left — be destroyed like Looney Ridge was,” he says. “The community now would like to look at helping with the recovery on Looney Ridge.”
He gestures around Inman Park, a welcoming community space built by local residents, as an example of the area’s can-do attitude. “We can do good things,” Ben says, “but we need the opportunity.”