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COAL RIVER by Michael Shnayerson


by Michael Shnayerson

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-374-12514-1
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An investigative reporter visits the beautiful Appalachian mountains—a little less beautiful than before—and reports just what King Coal has done in the name of energy and, of course, profit.

One of the best things about West Virginia and its neighbors is the terrain, which sits atop a great coalfield. Mining the rich lodes underground is much less efficient than strip mining, so mountains are decapitated to acquire the preferred bituminous coal beneath. The hills and hollows of Coal River Valley are devastated: In addition to coal, mountaintop blasting produces toxic slurry and lakes of sludge together with denuded ancient hardwood forests, displaced animals, dead fish and sick children, some even in danger of black lung disease. In an absorbing tale that echoes the age-old struggle of miners against management, Vanity Fair muckraker Shnayerson (The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria, 2002, etc.) portrays an angry citizenry united to fight the area’s biggest polluter, Massey Energy, and its arrogant, hated CEO. Helping the bad guys make molehills out of the Appalachians are the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, lazy bureaucrats and judges beholden to the coal interests. Corporate minions redraw maps, blast without notice and destroy the ecosystem without governmental hindrance. Underpinned by a bit of pertinent history and basic ecology, the narrative is instructive, lucidly tracking legal maneuvers and courtroom confrontations. Especially well depicted are the aroused locals, stalwart, stubborn people allied with an odd hedge-fund operator and some bright, energetic lawyers against the clever, wealthy boss of Massey. Now, the author concludes, the good guys have to hold on for a while longer until a new administration (of either party) proves itself willing to let the law prevail.

Considerable human interest in a well-explored story of strip mining.