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The High Cost of Coal

Janice Nease: Remembering the past, working for the future

Friday, September 8th, 2006

I am a child of Appalachia, and I say that with pride.

I was born and raised in a coal camp up Cabin Creek Hollow near Kayford, West Virginia. As was often the practice then, my family shared a house with my paternal grandparents. The home in which I was born is still standing; but it is standing in a ghost town. Little is left of my hometown but the footprints of my ancestors and my memories.

As a small child I thought the mountains were timeless; now I must face the cruel fact that they may not be. The mountains played an important part in the daily life of those who lived in the hills and hollows of West Virginia. They provided recreation and food to supplement our meager income. They also provided medicinal herbs to cure us when we were ill and a place to bury our dead when it was time for them to go. They offered us solace when times were hard and inspiration when we needed to refresh our soul. The mountains also reminded us of who we were and upon whose earth we walked. The mountains surrounded our modest homes with beauty. Most importantly, they gave us our sense of time and our sense of place.

Even as a child, when I looked at the mountains, I knew I was part of something much greater than I. The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world. In fact, they are the mother of all mountains. During the Ice Age, the Appalachian Mountains were never glaciated. When the ice receded, they were used to reseed the rest of the North American continent.

Long before coal was discovered near the small town of Peytona, West Virginia, proud mountain people inhabited the hills and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains. These mountain people have always had a unique relationship with the land on which they live. For us, land is not something you stand on. Most of the people in the Southern coalfields live on land that has been in their family for as much as nine generations. Some are descendants of the original settlers of the Appalachian Mountains. Others have Cherokee ancestors. Although there is sometimes a dispute over where the settlers came from, we know that our section of the Appalachian Mountains was settled primarily by Scotch-Irish who left their homeland in Northern Ireland during the 19th century. They soon developed a folk culture that reached throughout all of Appalachia.

This culture was able to absorb new settlers that moved into the mountains. Whether they were Eastern Europeans, Spaniards, Italians or Poles, if they lived here long enough to have children, their children became mountain people. The fact that the culture could absorb other cultures with little or no change itself indicates just how strong the culture was. History proves that the culture was one of a kind and that it flourished in relative isolation for a century and a half before mainstream American culture began making inroads.

Wintertime in the Appalachian Mountains, photo by Kent KessingerToday there are really two Appalachias – the one I love and have just described and the mythic Appalachia most Americans imagine. The real Appalachia is lush green mountains, deep ancient forests, ice-cold trout streams, small hill-farms, and little mountain communities filled with unpretentious working-class people. Common sense and commitment are common values. Appalachians tend to look back more than most other Americans. They define who they are by how they fit into an extended family, which includes ancestors. Their roots run deep in the mountain soil, deeper than corporate greed and political corruption. Appalachia is not the woe-begotten place filled with illiterate people lost in poverty who live in squalor on welfare. It is not snake handlers or cannibalistic retarded people. This is a common stereotype created by the land barons and the out of state corporations that robbed the people of their land and their mineral rights. Unfortunately this is the image most people have of Appalachia. This image is used to strip us of our humanity so that no one will feel obligated to care about us. For them, we are throwaway people.

The future of Appalachian culture is clouded. There are those who say the culture is dying. I say that the culture is still alive and will remain so if we honor the values, customs and commitment of our ancestors. If we do nothing, it will surely die.

The greatest danger to Appalachian culture is mountaintop removal mining. This egregious system of mining is destroying both the physical and human environment throughout the southern coalfields. Mountaintop removal mining makes moonscapes out of mountains, buries streams under tons of rubble, contaminates drinking water, creates flooding, demolishes one of the oldest and most diverse temperate forests and wildlife habitats, causes blasting damage to residents’ homes, destroys our mountain culture and heritage and permanently destroys entire communities.

Coal River Mountain Watch was organized in 1998 in response to the fear and frustration of people near or down stream from huge mountaintop removal sites. We began as a small group of volunteers working to organize the residents of the southern coalfields. With the help of Appalachian Voices, who served as both our fiscal sponsor and our mentor, we began to grow. From this humble beginning, we have become one of the major forces in opposition to mountaintop removal mining and the voice of the southern coalfields.

We look forward to many more years of cooperation with people and organizations across America in our fight to establish social, economic and environmental justice in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. We hope you will join us in this fight.

Janice Nease is the executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a community organization in southern West Virginia working to end mountaintop removal.

19 Responses to “Janice Nease: Remembering the past, working for the future”

  1. andy brown Says:

    Beautiful, touching story Janice. I like the way you write. There is power in your words.

  2. Stephanie Sterns-Klug Says:

    The power in your words comes from your strong roots, all of us from West Virginia have this power, and should use it to start protecting our mountains in West Virginia and surrounding southern states!!!! Thank you for the great entry Ms. Neace.

  3. Michelle Schlueter Says:

    Ms. Nease, thank you… I’ll probably cry the rest of the day, but thank you. I moved from western Virginia a few years ago to North Carolina and I miss my mountain home…how much more I’ll miss it when it’s all gone and too late to save…

  4. Patricia Bryant Says:

    I just stumbled across your comments – I was brought to tears. I grew up Greenbrier County, WV, and fear for the timeless beauty of all mountain regions. Thanks for confronting the inaccurate stereotypes about one of the loveliest places in the US.

  5. AlleganyMaeve Says:

    I come from Western Maryland, also a part of Appalachia. I believe Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining has begun in that area near Barton, Maryland. I looked on Google Earth and it sure looks that way. I have tried to get the local newspaper to investigate, but no one is interested in finding out what is going on. There are few jobs there and people are afraid to cause a disturbance.

  6. Patricia Sanders Says:

    I found your words while looking for others with a love of West Virginia. A few years ago I visited a former classmate at her mountain home in WV for a weekend. I ended up going up until I found the right place for me. My cabin sits on a ridge and I have a a lovely view of the farms and valleys of a nearby town. My area of the Panhandle is so beautiful and peaceful, and is inhabited by the kindest people I’ve met anywhere. I haven’t been called “honey” so much since my mother died. Buying a home in West Virginia is the best thing I ever did for myself. I retired a year ago and am loving life on my ridge. Stopping mountain top removal should be a state priority – in the name of historic preservation.

  7. Andy Ray Says:

    Fabulous writer. Keep up the spirit. Preserve our home land.

  8. M. Kathleen Says:

    Eloquently stated. You brought tears to my eyes. Keep up the passion…prayers are with you. KNG

  9. John D. Says:

    I noticed the new mining operations you mentioned while visiting family in Sharon last fall (I’ll be there again in a week). It’s disgusting, a blight on the environment.

    My brother and I took a drive up Cabin Creek Road to see where family used to live in Eskdale. To our surprise, the entire town is GONE. Even the train yards are no more. The mine pulled out, and closed up this once-thriving community.

    Yet the coal trains keep rolling every day, back and forth with their loads of black gold. But the railroads won’t invest in West Virgina, either, leaving the tracks rusting and ready to crumble. Doing just enough to help bleed it dry.

    This beautiful country is filled with beautiful people. Proud. Honest. Hard-working. Everything we hold dear.

    I’m proud to have been born there to great parents who were forced to leave in the 50’s to support our family. Even then, the only jobs were in the mines or for the railroad. Both honorable professions that had claimed the lives of many in our family. And things have grown progressively worse as the young have been forced to flee to find work.

    It’s time we quit flying over this oasis in our heartland, and begin standing up for its people and the environment that mining threatens to ruin forever.

    The only answer is to find ways to draw entrepreneurial and corporate efforts back to the hills, along with industries that can be sustained and grow even in the remote regions off the beaten track. To stop the brain drain, and put it to work to make this again into a vibrant contributor to the national economy in more ways than just mining coal.

    Though I do not live there now (family still does), I am a lawyer, author, and national speaker and offer my support to the movement if they should care to call.

    In the meantime, I encourage all of you to drive through the mountains and see what they’re doing. It’s worse than the strip minining that took so long to stop many years ago.

    God bless the mountains. And the people who call them their home.

  10. Ronda Elliott Says:


    I think this is a strange coincidence. I am doing a college assignment on cultural diversity. I stumbled accross your article while researching. It just so happens that my mother and father’s family were from Kayford, and later Cabin Creek.

    Are you familiar with the Short family? With the Kidd family? I’ll ask my family if they have a rememberance of your family.

    Great story. You have much passion for the place you love.

  11. Debra Bechard (shumate) Says:

    Janice, My nme is Debra . My mom Ruby Shumate grew up in Kayford. i don’t know if you new the Shumate family. If so could you give me any information on them. I am looking for my moms family.
    Thank you
    Debra Bechard

  12. Almyra Says:

    my mother’s maiden name was Nease. She was the daughter of William D. Nease from Illinois but relocated to Phelps County MO (St. James). My Grandaughter (5 weeks old) is the 6th generation to live on the property owned by the Nease Family. I bet we ae some relation, I have the family tree for the Nease Family if you would be interested.

  13. Grace Says:


    Every little bit we do to help the cause will, in the end will help our country. You are modern day crusader and protector of this great area. I am in North Carolina, probably less than 75 miles from you as the crow flies…….How long before they run out of devastating WV and head south?????? Not if I have anything to say about it!!!!! It never should have been allowed…..get the word out! People will be outraged when they find out what is happening.!
    You go girl!

  14. Jacqueline S. Homan Says:

    The raping and pillaging of the Appalachian mountains must stop! Until recently, I knew very little about Appalachia, or mountain people culture…until I met a handsome 41 year old man online by the name of Timothy Michael Conley. He lives close to Sharples, WV in a place called Hewitt (Timothy calls it a “holler”) with his parents and his 16 year old daughter Kandace. Timothy captured my heart. By extension, so has Appalachia.

    Tim educated me somewhat as to what the coal companies are doing, and have been doing to communities and the environment in West Virginia. Because I deeply care for Tim, I deeply care for all that is important to him and all that he cherishes. I drove all the way down there from where I live in Erie, PA to meet with Tim and to see Blair Mountain.

    There are no words to adequately convey my anger at the cannibalistic capitalist coal companies who have blood money on their hands. No amount of cheap electricity or fuel is worth what they are willing to destroy! None! We have the technology to harness solar, wind, and geothermal energy.

    What good is cheap coal-fired power when you cannot ever replace the natural resource of the mountains, the ecosystem, and the ability of the people living there to remain living there? There are some things you just cannot put a pricetag on.

    There is no excuse for our government failing to invest in alternative fuel and putan immediate stop to strip mining and mountaintop removal. Some day, I want to be able to sell my home and make my home in Appalachia – with the man I have come to love, and the beautiful mountains which are his home and his heritage.

    Coal companies not only have the indelible stain of debt peonage and the violent oppression of workers on their hands in every place coal was discovered. The coal companies also have left in their wake irreparable ecological disasters.

    As a Pennsylvania native, I can tell you what coal company greed and government ineptitude did to the Columbia County community known as Centralia. The largest anthracite coal vein in the US – the Buck Mountain coal vein – is going up in smoke, literally. It has been for the past 46 years. Centralia was ruined and before all is said and done, 3,700 acres of anthracite coal will be up in smoke.

    Please know that there are those of us “outsiders” to Appalachia who DO care what is happening to your land, your ecosystem, and your communities down there…and we are outraged. I for one, stand with you!

  15. Joe Smith Says:

    I would just like to ask all of you tree huggers that are against Surface mining if you ever think about the hard working man that you are putting out of work? Do you ever think about the men that actually get up and work everday that you and others are putting out of a job because of your actions? The man that lays awake at night worrying about he will pay his bills and take care of his family because he just lost his because the company that he works for could not keep mining because it could not meet the new requirments for permits set by the EPA. Do you ever think about the man that must tell his little boy that he can’t have a toy because dad doesn’t have the money to buy it for him because dad just lost his job and is living on what money that he was lucky enough to put in a savings account but is quickly depleting? Do you ever think about the man that you are leaving job less? It is very hard for a 45 year old man that has been a coal miner all of his life and has a wife and kids to take care of to lose his mining job and just start doing something else? Do you have any idea what that feels like? Because that is what you are doing. All that these men are trying to do is just take care of and provide a nice life for their self and their family. You and others are taking that away from them. How do you sleep at night knowing that a man is out of work because of your actions. If that doesn’t make you think then you are a cold hearted person. As for you Jacqueline S. Homan, the so called “outsider.” You have no idea what coal means to this area so keep your nose out of our business.

  16. Hap Klein Says:

    I remain astounded that our sloth and lazy approach to enegy is creating a greater disaster in Appalachia than nature itself has done anywhere on earth.
    Worse, we are aware of the insult to earth that is occuring and allow it to continue. Shame on us!

  17. Brooke Says:

    To Joe Smith:

    Yes, Joe. I do think about the hardworking man. I think about how when all the mountains are gone, then so will all the jobs and then what will you do? I think about how your son won’t be able to find work in the same area you currently work because all that will be left is barren rock he can’t do anything with. I personally have nothing against mining when it’s done responsibly. I want you to be able to feed your family and buy toys for your son. Providing you work and our nation energy can be done in a way that doesn’t completely decimate the mountains. Do you ever think about your grandchildren and how mountains that have existed for thousands of years won’t be around for them to play, work, or live in because of surface mining?

  18. Peter R. Cross Says:

    I’ve recently read Joe Bageant’s books, and think the rest of our stressed, hassled, materialistic, and “producing of the wrong things” nation could learn a lot from the positive values of Appalachian people. I lived in Morgantown, W. Va. for some important growing-up years (1949-1956). My father railed against the influence Big Coal had over the state’s government, and the extraction of wealth which kept it poor. I have long felt that this area is to be prized for its restorative natural resources, and should be filled with small lake resorts, colleges, artistic, theatrical, and music centers, ski centers, demonstration sustainable farms, hiking trails and campsites, and small premium hardwood coops using solar drying of their products. A FEW but very strategically-planned electric railroads would give efficient access to rail-heads, where hybrid or wholly electric (rental) vehicles would carry recreational etc. visitors on to their destinations. Judiciously-placed dams with fish ladders can increase the lake and fishing resource attractions.

    From a conclusion of an article in Harpers long ago, I remember this line, approximately: “It will be a wilderness or a garden. If it is not a garden, it will be nothing at all.” Obviously the Appalachians have gone beyond being a wilderness. So we have to choose to make this area a garden. And that means EVERYONE acting in all possible ways for energy conservation and green energy production. Coal condemns our children and grandchildren, in all likelihood, to a horrible future.

  19. James Robinson Says:

    West Virginia’s future is in it’s mountains, it’s wildlife and it’s waterways. We who live in these areas are going to have to join together and fight hard to save our land and water. Coal has to go away for the future of our people who suffer from a long list of medical problems that result from removing and burning coal from our mountains.

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Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition  •   Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowermentSierra Club Environmental Justice

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