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Book Review: Coal River or The Rape of the Appalachians

Coal River.  By Michael Shnayerson.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous, 2008.  321 pp.  Notes, acknowledgements and index.  Hardcover $25.00.


Coal River is a piece of investigative journalism written by Michael Shnayerson, who has been a contributing editor for Vanity Fair since 1986.  Shnayerson writes articles and books that cover many topics including, travel, business, politics and environmental issues and has contributed to the campaigns of Democrat candidates (Vanity Fair 2011). His distinct purpose for writing Coal River is an exposé of the power of “King Coal” in southern West Virginia and the influence it maintains over the environment, politics, every day citizens, workers and government agencies by telling the stories of the people who live and work there.  These stories come from residents, local activists, a lawyer who files suit against the coal machine and Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, one of the largest energy conglomerates in the United States.  Through the use of public records, court transcripts and interviews, Shnayerson tells a David and Goliath story of the Everyman against the modern Captains of Industry.

Massey Energy is a Virginia based company that has mining operations all over West Virginia.  An out-of-town company with an out-of-town CEO, the corporation practices both underground and strip mining, also called mountaintop removal.  Mountain top removal mining requires the systematic dynamite blasting away of mountains to get to the seams of coal underneath.  This process requires fewer workers to operate and is generally considered safer than underground mining; however, it completely destroys the topography, ecology and safety of water and the other resources of the surrounding areas.       Beyond the destruction of the mountains, the coal obtained from mountaintop removal must be washed and transported, a procedure which produces large amounts of waste materials that are either stored in man-made ponds called impoundments or dumped into existing valleys and streams and referred to as “fill”.  These operations require permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, whose task it is to see that the Clean Water Act and subsequent legislation protecting water resources are being adhered to by the coal companies.  Unfortunately, Shnayerson’s revelations show a government agency both unwilling and incapable of following its own mandate.

The players who help to tell the saga of the Coal River Valley are the people who live and work there.  Larry Gibson of Kayford Mountain is one local resident whose ancestors were at one time tricked into selling most their land by another out-of-town company long ago. He is the only one in his family left with property ownership in the hollow.  He is the last hold out on the mountain against Massey Energy’s attempt to buy him out to get to the coal seam beneath his property, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.  His neighbors have long ago sold their property and moved off the mountain or away from Coal River all together.  He has suffered violence, divorce and a deep personal loss of place due to mining all around his property.  He can see the devastation from his porch, but remains committed to remaining, so attached is he to this piece of land.  Others, specifically his ex-wife, have told him life would be easier if he chose another path, “But the mountain is his heritage.” (p. 7)

Joe Lovett is the story’s lawyer-hero who lives modestly and has a small legal firm.  He spends his time battling both Massey Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers.  While he occasionally takes on smaller cases against specific coal companies, he finds that attempts to sue Big Coal are generally exercises in futility.  Since large coal companies keep high powered, high priced lawyers on retainer, they have the ability to keep suits tangled up in court for years.  Suing the company over issues of health or matters of worker compensation requires a burden of proof that can be near impossible to meet.  Instead, he sues the government, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers, for failure to enforce the Clean Air and Water Acts and to follow their own mandates and rules.  He goes after the Corps specifically for its rubber stamping of Nationwide 21 permits. A Nationwide 21 permit is issued by the Army Corps of Engineers to allow mining debris to be filled into to a water source.  This is only allowed when it is found that such a fill would cause no adverse environmental effects and is intended for small projects.  Companies are not allowed to parse out huge projects into smaller ones in order to receive a Nationwide 21 permit, which is easier to obtain that the individual permit (IPs) required for bigger operations. However, due to the influence of King Coal, the number of permit applications and the ability of the Army Corps of Engineers to supervise itself, these permits were being issued for very large projects that caused devastating harm to water sources around West Virginia mines (p. 15).

Judy Bonds is the local activist who heads the Coal River Mountain Watch and general thorn in the side of Massey Energy and in particular, Don Blankenship, who finds the activities of residents against Massey to be a personal affront.  Bonds convinces Lovett to take on the case of Marsh Fork Elementary School.  One of Massey’s subsidiaries has an impoundment pond situated above the school and has built one coal silo and started construction on a second so close to the school as to raise questions.  It becomes known that the company had simply “moved” the property line to suit their own building needs.  There are two main problems with the company’s actions; one is the chance of the impoundment failing as had happened on other sites, which would literally wipe out everything below it, including the school and the children inside and two, the proximity of the coal operations to the school which concerned parents, Judy Bonds and Joe Lovett believe to be causing health problems for many of the students.

Finally, there is the villain of the story, Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, a picture of capitalistic excess and unsympathetic individualism. He is the perfect foil to Joe Lovett and the working people of southern West Virginia.  Blankenship was raised by a single mother who instilled both a strong ethic and a penchant for “othering” those different or below a certain standard that she alone determined.  Blankenship treats workers, including his own housekeeper, as expendable commodities and the mountains of West Virginia even worse.  He throws his influence around wherever he goes and cultivates a company culture that encourages surveillance and a corporate standard of hiring inexperienced workers over union members in order to keep control of the Massey workforce.  Blankenship begins an obsessive campaign against a sitting West Virginia Supreme Court judge, obliterating the man’s personal reputation in the process, in order to elect a judge who will view upcoming suits against Massey and the Army Corps of Engineers much more favorably.  He is, in short, not a very nice man.

While there are other influences at work, from the election of George W. Bush to changes in the local Department of Environmental Protection, the plight of Coal River is a story about huge institutions and their influence and harm on small communities and individuals.  The books contains victories here and there for the “little guys”, but overall is a glaring critique of King Coal and its ability to fully integrate government and business into a corrupt system of back and forth backscratching.  This is a system where justice doesn’t just move slowly, but rather barely happens at all.

As a work on environmental sociology, Coal River examines multiple themes.  Three main perspectives stand out throughout the work; the sociology of place and the importance of spatial identity, the influence of the treadmill of production and capitalism on individuals and environments, and lastly, the “othering” and discriminatory practices of capitalism that allow for environmental destruction.

The residents of Coal River experience a profound sense of loss of place, identity and financial stability. This is summed up by Judy Bonds who laments that even if she wanted to move, she could not, “And for us now, there’s no place to move.  We can’t get any money for our houses and everywhere else is more expensive.” (p. 57).  The residents of this area, like many places in Appalachia, can trace their family’s establishment in the hollows back for generations, often 200 years or more.  The people of this area are what Wendell Berry calls “stickers”, people who love the place they inhabit and have a strong affection for the life they and their ancestors have created (Berry 2012).  “Stickers” do not require the endless accumulation of capital and wealth; they only require what they need and a little of what they want, all the while taking care of what they have.  This is who the people of Coal River represent.

Shnayerson’s critique also exposes the dangerous influences of unregulated and uncontrolled capitalism, specifically as it relates to the treadmill of production.  Even though the Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to assess all effects, through a multi-agency process, (including aesthetic, cultural, social, historical and environmental) of mountain top mining, that assessment had never been done for any site, according to Shnayerson’s research (p. 102).  This process is too much trouble, too costly and holds up production for far too long.  The basic regulatory structure is a wrench in the works of the treadmill.  Furthermore, Blankenship’s opinion that mountaintop removal is actually the right thing to do illuminate how that treadmill is generated by elites whose purpose is the capitalization of the government and its agencies, creating a situation where different government institutions compete for scarce resources with a limited workforce.  This allows for those in control of the means of production to keep the treadmill ever producing and accumulating, while hindering regulation and control.  By doing so, the representatives elected to work for the best interests of the citizenry become beholden to corporate patrons and adopt a hegemonic ideation that what is best for King Coal must be best for West Virginia.  The influence of King Coal is evidence of an undemocratically engineered treadmill of production that serves only the elites, maintains an inefficient process whereby jobs are eliminated, local markets and communities are destroyed and profits are funneled upward to those with access to capital and influence (Downey and Strife 2010, Foster 2005, Freudenberg 2005).

The final thematic subject of Coal River is the blatant discrimination and “othering” of the residents of southern West Virginia and the unashamed, but rarely questioned, privilege of those with access and control of resources and government.  Though regulations clearly exist to help control the amount of damage mountaintop mining and removal will do to a local environment and community, the privilege of such corporations allows them to work outside the law (Freudenberg 2005).   “The way they’ve done it (operated outside the law) is by dehumanizing us…when they say, ‘those people are ignorant and inbred’ then who cares [about] my grandson?” (p.57). When decision makers and political movers no longer see the average citizen or worker as a human, but determine that individuals are either a commodity to enhance or a challenge to prevent production, the ability of those in power to sweep aside the health and well-being of people and the environment is easy to imagine.  This is exactly how Don Blankenship views people outside his own privileged class.  This is shown in how he treats even the woman who maintains his home, all justified simply because he is deserving of a more relaxed life by virtue of his status and wealth. “As to my reactions [offensive comments in response to the lack of ice cream in the freezer] please consider that I pay 4 or five people to save me time and make my life comfortable.” (p. 198).  Blankenship’s housekeeper, Deborah K. May, was not a person to him, but a resource to make him comfortable, just like an expensive sofa or the use of a company jet.

The inequality between those in power and those without is further illustrated in how the law handles each class.  Massey and its subsidiaries racked up infractions.  In 2003, a Massey subsidiary collected 68 infractions following fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars previously in the same year. Two years later, the company was still in operation and the fines from 2003 unpaid.  This is indicative of the systematic discriminatory practices of the American justice system.  If one of the residents of southern West Virginia were to incur 68 violations of the law for any reason and neglect to pay the restitution for such grievances, that individual would surely be thrown in jail or worse.  Corporations are given special treatment far beyond what any working class citizen can expect from their government.  Both the access to rights/resources and the special treatment of the corporations indicate an amount of privilege given to a special “class” of “people”, not just the people running the corporations and the government representatives running the state, but the actual corporations themselves, since by 2008 corporations had already attained the basic legal status of a person (Berry 2012, Freudenberg 2005).

Though Shnayerson is not a sociologist, Coal River irradiates the social problems brought to Appalachia by King Coal, including loss of place and identity, financial instability, inequality and discrimination and the loss of health and well-being.  The author tells a compelling story that is easy to read and, while sometimes overwhelmingly episodic, makes a concerted effort to bring the reader back around to stories and characters multiple times to maintain fluidity.

In order to tell a non-fiction story that reads like a novel, Shnayerson creates a clear delineation between heroes and villains.  He singles out Don Blankenship for most of the wrath aimed at these villains of the story which, unfortunately, leads to some othering of the author’s own.  Shnayerson casts Blankenship as a type of Stalin-esque patriarch, who always knows what the “right” thing to do is and when the serfs of the underclass act up, he “rightfully” punishes them.  While Blankenship is quite obviously a good representation of one class oppressing a lower class, it is not Blankenship on his own that created the environment where King Coal does whatever it wants in Appalachia, or for that matter, what big corporations do all over the United States.  The ability of the titans and captains of industry to squash those who work underneath has been part of the DNA of the American Experience since the importation of slavery and indentured servitude.

However, if the reader keeps in mind the bias of the author and allows for the facts to tell the heart of the story, Coal River is a book that is an outstanding read for anyone who cares about the plight of the underclass and the environmental dilemma of modernity vs. sustainability.

Coal River is the antithesis to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a real world where “objectivism” runs amok in stark contrast to the supposed crippling ideals of the liberal agenda.  The book makes a strong case for the idea that standing up and speaking truth to power takes courage, that there must be suffering people willing to continue to suffer and suffer for a cause in order to make change in the world.  Shnayerson reminds the reader that those who live uncomfortable lives and are willing to become even more desperate in the shadow of  power and influence, in order to make “a more perfect union”, are the true revolutionaries of America.  They are America’s true Patriots.


Edit: After presenting my review, it has come to my attention that Don Blankenship is actually a “mustache twirling villain”, the likes of which Disney has never seen and that Shnayerson was actually kind to the man in this book.  I stand corrected, but, as you all know, still make an attempt to preserve the humanity of the others I abhor even when it makes me ill to do so.


Berry, Wendell. 2012. Jefferson Lecture. Published by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Downey, Liam and Susan Strife. 2010. “Inequality, Democracy and the Environment.”  Organization and Environment 23(2):155-188.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2005. “The Treadmill of Accumulation.” Organization and Environment 18(1):7-18.

Freudenburg, William R. 2005. “Privileged Access, Privileged Accounts: Toward a Socially Structured Theory of Resources and Discourses.” Social Forces 84(1):89-114.

Vanity Fair. 1998. “Contributing Editor: Michael Shnayerson.” July 7, 2011.

Written by thelittlepecan

July 25, 2012 at 2:50 pm