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West Virginia’s complicated relationship with mining

For those living in coal mining towns in West Virginia, their relationships with coal aren't simple.

Generations have supported their families by mining coal because it’s the only work available, and generations have watched the lives of their coalmining fathers and brothers be cut short because of health issues from working in the mines.

Photographer Chad A. Stevens has been working on a documentary, "A Thousand Little Cuts," for about seven years on mountaintop removal, a coal excavation technique used primarily in the Appalachia mining region.

Mountaintops are removed and dumped into adjacent valleys to reach layers of coal. At least 400 mountains have been shortened in this way, which has a serious impact on the natural environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency found that more than 1,200 stream segments had been affected by either the pollutants in the water or interrupted stream flows.

Stevens first saw a mountaintop removal site in 2003 while at a multimedia journalism workshop. A friend led him up a winding road in the Kentucky mountains. The site wasn’t visible from the highway, which he’d been told was intentional. It took his breath away.

“You know that feeling when you see the Grand Canyon for the first time in person, and it’s so epic, so powerful?” Stevens said. “It’s the inverse of that feeling. It’s taking away what’s natural for the extraction of coal.”

As his project progressed, he realized how complicated the situation is, especially for the residents.

Stevens said it’s been difficult to find residents and executives at coal companies willing to talk to him for his project. Even though Stevens wants to explore all sides of coal mining, the assumption is that any kind of media is anti-coal.

“A lot don’t speak out because it’s their family working for the coal industry,” he said. One subject didn’t initially want Stevens to film her family because she was afraid her son-in-law would be moved to a more dangerous job in the mine.

Coal River Mountain in southern West Virginia is the only mountain in the Coal River watershed that hasn’t been blown up for mountaintop removal, according to the activist group Coal River Mountain Watch.

In 2008, the coal company Massey Energy received a permit to mountaintop mine Coal River Mountain. Massey was bought by a competitor, Alpha Natural Resources, a year after the Upper Big Branch Mine accident that killed 29 miners in 2010.

In his documentary, Stevens focuses on Lorelei Scarbro, a resident of Coal River Mountain and now a member of the watch group. Scarbro’s father, grandfather and husband were coal miners. Her husband died of black lung, she says, and the mining would take place right behind her house that her husband built.

“They have no heart,” Scarbro says in the documentary trailer. “They have no respect for the living or the dead.”

In a meeting taped by Stevens, Scarbro says the state government needs to be providing job diversity. One man at the meeting says strip miners aren’t coal miners like his family or friends.

“Strip miners aren’t doing nothing but blasting the tops off of mountains,” he says in the trailer.  “Coal mining is what my dad did or Roger did. … And when they left the mountains were still intact.”

Scarbro says mountaintop removal is a human rights issue and has been campaigning to stop it from happening at Coal River Mountain.

“It’s a David and Goliath story,” she says in the trailer. “It’s very difficult to believe that things can change.”

Although permits have been issued, no mountaintop mining has begun on Coal River Mountain.

- Lauren Russell, CNN