The hard-working people of West Virginia are as deeply rooted in the land as the coal that's being taken from it. The communities of Shumates and Hazy are no different. People here hold a wealth of knowledge from generations of living as part of these mountains, a knowledge that has carried them through bloody, protracted labor strikes and unending hardship. However, “This is ground zero for the climate battle, where the most direct impacts of our use
of coal are felt, and any transition away from coal has to center around economic transition in Appalachia,” said Rory McIlmoil, wind campaign coordinator for Coal River Mountain Watch. “We've ignored, ridiculed, and exploited those living in the coalfields of Appalachia for far too long. It's their turn, we owe them, and they need our help.”
King Pettry, Sr. Photo by Rick Bradford.
Massey Energy named the mine surrounding Hazy Hollow, Edwight—which produced the sludge that buried Shumates Branch. What's left of the Hazy and Shumates communities is now often referred to by the Massey-given moniker. “Edwight is a town on the banks of the Coal River in northwestern Raleigh County. Edwight is bounded on the north by the juncture of Hazy Creek and the Coal River; to the southwest by a hillside of the Cherry Pond Mountain chain; and to the south by Shumates Branch,” Edwight resident Rick Bradford wrote in his book about the town where he grew up, Edwight, Near the mouth of Hazy. Daniel Shumate gave Shumates Branch its present name when he built a cabin in the bottom near its mouth where he lived for three or four years before moving to the Marshes of Trap Hill. He fought against the British in the Revolutionary War and was given land by the state of Virginia afterward, in lieu of money. Speculators accumulated sizable tracts of land shortly thereafter when “the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill allowing anyone to acquire 'waste and unappropriated land at $2.00 per hundred acres,'” Rick wrote.
For most of the 19th century, the area was filled with farmers where sufficient flat land existed, the mill at the mouth of Shumates Branch served people from miles around, the water was clean and the people were free to roam the mountains. All that began to change as Northern industrialists started buying timber rights at the end of the century. A handful of men were also amassing large tracts of land, sometimes through dubious circumstances, and later formed the Rowland Land Company. They utilized the broad-form deed to separate land ownership from occupancy. This is discussed in more detail in the Absentee Landownership section.
More detail on unions in the Coal River Valley is in the Labor Unions section of History & Social Geography. Some Edwight miners took part in the famous Battle of Blair Mountain. “The miners lost that fight but made the nation aware of their brutal working conditions.” Michael Shnayerson wrote in his book, Coal River: How a few brave Americans took on a powerful company—and the federal government—to save the land they love. “That led President Roosevelt, more than a decade later, to legalize union organizing.” Thirteen of the Edwight miners were put in jail and Van Hunter, later-Circuit Clerk of Raleigh County, bailed them out of jail in Logan. Hunter was relieved of his job when he returned to Edwight and, after the insurrection, Edwight and Hazy were still non-union operations. For more on Blair Mountain, see Blair Mountain Resources and Friends of Blair Mountain.
“There was a brief labor strike at Number 1 (in Hazy) and strike-breakers were sent to break it up. A shot was fired at the strikebreakers from the hill behind Wilburn Pettry's house,” Rick wrote. “...secret union meetings were held in the schoolhouse at the mouth of Sugar Camp.
“A hot union man in Hazy, Jimmy Hendricks, saw his house burned to the ground. But Edwight was organized and was presented Local Union Charter 6815 UMWA on December 22, 1933. A copy of the charter was presented to Mike Vergis for allowing the miners to meet secretly in his restaurant to organize and conduct business.”
In the late-1940s, the mines were being mechanized. That meant fewer workers and new hazards. “Miners had to be watchful not to be crushed and run over by these machines and they had to be careful not to get their hands, feet, or clothing caught in the machines,” Bradford wrote.
"I don't know if you ever heard the story of the Edwight mine. They had a bench, and when you were there on the job you could go over there and sit down on the bench and when they carried somebody out you could go and take their place," Naoma resident Glenn Henderson said. The Raleigh-Wyoming Coal Company brought in efficiency experts who, referred to by the miners as “minutemen,” would time a man as he did his job. “The result was that one man would do a job formerly done by two or three men,” Rick wrote.
The unions began to lose ground in the mid-1980s, with Massey Energy and its ruthless chairman Don Blankenship leading the charge. Blankenship would commonly buy a union mine and shut it down until the union contract ran out, then re-open the mine non-union. More on Massey's union busting is available in the Massey section.
Coal mining methods have also changed. In the 1970's, mountaintop removal (MTR) came into small use, mainly in the western U.S., but picked up pace in Appalachia in the '90s. MTR meant even fewer mining jobs. In the early fifties over 125,000 people were coal miners in West Virginia. Today, fewer than 15,000 are. According to Appalachian Voices, between 1987 and 1997 coal production rose 32 percent despite disappearing mine jobs.
Marsh Fork Elementary
New clean air regulations and a diminishing supply of cleaner coal meant new techniques of washing coal were introduced, leaving the Clean Water Act-prohibited toxins in multi-billion-gallon toxic sludge impoundments throughout Appalachia, burying headwater streams, forests and history.
In the town of Sundial, Marsh Fork Elementary School sits 400 yards downslope from one such impoundment: the leaky 385-foot-high Shumates Branch earthen dam, which holds back 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge. The school also sits below Massey subsidiary Independence Coal's 1,849-acre Edwight mountaintop removal mine and is 225 feet from the coal silo at the Goals Coal Preparation Plant—another Massey subsidiary. Children at the school are frequently sick and asthma is high on the list. The prep plant releases chemical-laden coal dust that independent studies have shown to be prevalent in the school.
Local residents have been asking the school board and the governor's office through multiple channels to move the school to a healthy location within the community, but have so far met only resistance. Partly in response to that resistance, they started the Pennies of Promise campaign on May 30, 2006, to raise the money for a new school. Work is also afoot to transition the area's economy away from coal to something healthier and sustainable. A wind farm on Coal River Mountain, for example, would provide jobs for longer, more local tax revenue from industry and a healthier place for kids than MTR would.
Unfortunately, a mountaintop removal mine on Coal River Mountain would destroy over 60 percent of the potential wind turbine sites. Coal has been the cornerstone of the economy for more than 100 years. One of the best things available to replace coal in West Virginia's economy, wind, is being destroyed by King Coal's desperate attempts at survival. The past is trying to destroy the future.
Some residents want mountaintop removal ended, a new school built within the community for the kids at Marsh Fork Elementary and for Massey to be run off. They want access to the mountains that have sustained their families for generations and to be treated like human beings.
The rest of the Hazy and Shumates theme will expound on many of these ideas, serving as a quasi-case study of the larger Coal River Valley, which is covered in History & Social Geography. Absentee Landownership will discuss how West Virginia's land ownership has been characterized by absentee and often out-of-state landlords who influenced tax structures to benefit themselves and shoulder the majority of the tax burden upon farmers and mountain settlers. In addition, it will cover the swarthy ways in which peoples' land and mineral rights ended up in the hands of large landholding companies. The Marsh Fork Elementary section discusses the situation at the school, air testing results and the general worries and environment around the school. A Community & Strip Mining describes the current situation in the area, what's happened and what some residents' desires are.