Photo essay by JESSICA DEIS
This summer, my family and I took a road trip to West Virginia to see the devastation of mountaintop removal mining firsthand. The journey was important to the photo documentary I’m working on to draw attention to this violent form of mining.
My husband Brian and I and our two children traveled a full day from Louisville by car, stopping in Dayton before driving on to Charleston, where we spent the night. On Sunday, we attended services at the Unitarian Universalist Church. Walking through the parking lot, I noticed several vehicles bearing “I Love Mountains” bumper stickers and knew we were in the right place. Inside, I met Julian Martin, who appeared like an angel of sorts, sporting a shirt with the same mantra as the cars in the parking lot.
Julian was eager to provide stories and information and even offered to take us to visit “the only house left in Mud.” Yes, Mud is a town, or was. After a drive down a winding dirt road lined in trees, we arrived at the infamous house. No one was home, but Julian was happy to tell us about the family and their property.
When the coal company decided to mine this land, most residents gave in to the company’s demands and moved away. The Miller family had no interest in relocating and went all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure they could keep a portion of their property. The family’s sole stipulation was to be able to sit on their porch and see the land the way it was intended, rather than mining activity. And that’s what they got.
From their front yard, we could see that the porch offered a lovely view. But the trees behind their home gave way to an unnatural landscape. The sky was beautiful on this particular day, one of the most photogenic skies I’ve shot to date, and it contrasted dramatically with the land. Looking in one direction, we saw forest; in the other, we saw something more like desert. Aside from the human and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining, my knowledge of what lay beyond—acres and acres of tossed up rocks and minerals; land without trees, water or wildlife—was deeply troubling. It is unthinkable that this could happen in the middle of the Appalachians, the oldest mountains in the world, with the richest ecosystem in North America.
Julian showed us a “reclaimed mountain” not far from the last house in Mud. The coal companies tout the land as being restored to its natural contour and ready for plant and wildlife reintroduction. They also claim this land is much more useful than the previous hillside—perfect for shopping centers, airports and golf courses. I’m wondering where the customers for such attractions will come from? Will they drive nearly an hour from Charleston to shop or play golf?
It’s hard to be optimistic when you see the damage already done by mountaintop removal mining—flooding, polluted streams, damaged wells and displaced families. But I draw hope from people like Julian and the Martin family. I realize that, with enough momentum, we can move toward a more sustainable future.