A Trip Back to West Virginia

When I was nine years old and was living in the Washington suburbs, my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire. He chose to move us to central West Virginia and join a medical practice — a strange choice since we had no ties at all to the area. But Dad was always altruistic and thought he might be able to do some good. It was 1962 and community service, John F. Kennedy style, was the prevailing mood.

So, we left affluent Bethesda, Md. for rural, coal-battered Harrison County. I had been taking French in the fourth grade back in Bethesda, but when I got to school in the Mountain State, I found that my arithmetic book had been in use since it was printed in 1903. Culture shock is probably too mild a world.

But I learned a lot. At night we’d hear the throb of diesel locomotives as they pulled a coal haul up a branch line. I would walk for miles, hiking up the hills that had been laid open with big shovels on strip mines. Few laws were in place then, and people would find the beautiful vista next to them blown up and ripped apart for coal.
Coal operators were supposed to shove the dirt back, but few did. The coal was heavily sulfuric, so leachate from rainwater created orange-yellow ponds of toxic water. We used to gather the skulls of animals next to them, and when we were old enough, blast them apart with the .22 caliber single shot, bolt action rifles that every boy in the Mountain State, including me, had to have.

My point is that for the several years we lived in West Virginia in the 1960s, I grew to love the place. Some of my school mates’ dads were miners. Some worked on the strip mines. And there was an uneasy history kept quiet by the authorities. The famed rebel organizer Mother Jones was actually put on trial once in town, but I didn’t learn about it until years later. We still were living there when a deep mine explosion killed 78 miners at Farmington on Nov. 20, 1968, including the fathers of some grade school friends.

So, I was glad that Style Weekly, the only print media outlet left in Richmond that actually does any real journalism, sent me out to southern West Virginia to do a piece about Massey Energy, the Richmond-based firm whose name is usually associated with cancer treatment centers and charity.

Yet Massey Energy (the Massey family sold their interests years ago) is anything but their Richmond image. Run by a strong-willed CEO, the firm is regularly sued for any variety of matters, including safety issues, deaths, mountaintop removal and union bashing. Last year, the EPA ordered it to pay $20 million for Clean Water Act violations, the largest penalty of its kind. In 2000, a Massey sludge pond spill in Kentucky was judged to be several times the size of the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska.

The firm’s CEO contributes heavily to West Virginia political campaigns, especially that for judges and drew controversy when he was photographed vacationing with the then-chief of the West Virginia Supreme Court on the French Riviera.

I also visited with environmentalists worried about the threats of floods from sludge ponds and coal silos spewing coal dust next to elementary schools (see photo). But the most stunning thing I saw was mountaintop removal, which is strip mining on steroids. A fairly new concept, it was a topic for a report I did for BusinessWeek back in the 1990s. It is a quantum leap from the old strip mines I used to play on.
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Let me know what you think.

Peter Galuszka

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26 responses to “A Trip Back to West Virginia”

  1. Groveton Avatar


    Isn't the problem that smart people like you leave places like central WVa after they get their education and start their work career? I mean no disrespect to you but if well educated people won't stay somewhere – how do you generate economic improvement? I have teh same concerns about the economic development funds (some from the tobacco settlement) being spent on "Green R&D" in rural Virginia. I've done a lot of volunteer work with children in the impoverished inner city. There are plenty of smart kids there. But their goal is to get out of the inner city. Sometimes, I see the kids (who are now young adults) in New York, San Francisco, Alexandria, etc. None of them have any interest in moving back to the inner city.

    Should the goal be convincing more people like your Dad to go to places with economic challenges or try to change the places into locations where the smart kids who excel academically want to stay?

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Think of all the energy they will save from running up and down the mountains after the coal companies turn it into the great plains of West Virginia.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Actually, my family ended back in Eastern North Carolina in a small town where the per capita income wasn’t all that high. My late father enjoyed working there until he retired.
    I got my first job on a newspaper there in and after college for a while. From there I went on to larger towns and eventually overseas where I worked in rather harsh conditions but enjoyed every minute of it.
    Maybe you don’t know this, but being a small town newspaper reporter in the non-union South means getting paid very little and working night and day. It is much, much harder to write difficult stories in small communities when the publisher has a complex web of connections.
    Yet journalism was the career path for me and I’m glad I’ve been doing it for 35 years although times are a bit tight now.
    Frankly, I kinda find your question out of line. My life choices aren’t your business and are not for you to judge. If you feel so, why do you live in one of the richest counties in the U.S.?

    Peter Galuszka

  4. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Well neighbor, I happen to think that flattening some of those rocks is a good thing if done right. It would allow an opportunity to apply those lands to a better use for all West Virginians. But like most things in hillbilly land, ain’t nothing done right.

    The coal companies are going to use the least expensive option for mine reclamation. It’s what they’ve always done because the state let’s them get away with it. What you will end up with are a bunch of rocks where centuries of dead vegetation accumulated into soil.

    It’s really no surprise. WV’s been a dumping grounds for generations. I developed an interest in electronics when I stumbled on a friend pulling components at the TV store’s hillside dump. My racing buddies got motor money by selling bondo’ed junkers from the Pontiac lot a little further down the ridge. This very minute there probably are Hudson Hornets and other ghosts sitting up there, all plainly visible in the fall. And who hasn’t heard of redneck lawn ornaments?

    A little bit of flat land could do wonders in a region that has seen few new buildings in more than 50 years. Or it could just turn into another junk yard.

  5. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake


    There’s a bit of difference between inner city and Appalachia. Every June there is a mass exodus from WV as graduates head out into the world looking for jobs. When you’re young you tend to go back often, but as time passes the hills become a distant memory. It’s not that you don’t want to go back, many do when they retire, the issue is life’s priorities take precedence.

    I’ve got land that has been handed down since around 1840. To be honest, I don’t have a clue what I would do with it, but to me it represents where I came from and the generations that struggled there to give me the opportunities I have today. If trouble arose, I’d as soon sell my house than part with that copperhead infested rocky soil.

  6. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    very excellent article…. the CEO sounds like a throwback to the hard-nosed industrial Barons

    I have tons and tons of conflicting feelings that range from wondering if Massey Coal went away …wouldn’t they be replaced quickly by another company doing exactly the same thing?

    and if we decide that there will be no more leveling mountaintops (which is much, much more damaging that making the earth flat)… I suspect the cost of electricity would jump… and Va’s ports might not be shipping as much “more expensive” coal…to export.

    so.. I’ll pop the question:

    Would you be willing to pay $50 more a month for electricity if that would be the cost of outlawing mountaintop mining?

    and of course many more men would die doing deep mining of coal…

    but I tell you what really strikes me about the ..ahem “regulation” by the Army Corp which regulates dumping and filling in the “waters of the US”.

    Down near where Darrell lives the Army Corp will rip you a new one if you dump fill dirt in lowland swampy area.. but over in West by God VA – you can push a whole mountain into a stream bed while the Corps says “what fill”?

    Of course the enviro-weenies are no help either.. as soon as you say wind or nukes to replace the coal they need smelling salts…

  7. Groveton Avatar


    Maybe my question was out of line although I didn’t mean it that way. My question has little to nothing to do with your particular choice and more to do with the general situation. It seems to me that the more ambitious, energetic and educated kids leave places with economic challenges. They move to places with more economic opportunity. But it these very ambitious, energetic and educated kids who could become the leaders who improve the economic environment of areas chronically below the average standard of living. If a community that has economic challenges can’t keep it’s best and brightest doesn’t that hurt the community’s ability to rise above the economic challenges? And if a community is doomed to forever live in economically challenged times does it make any sense to expend economic development dollars there?

    I live where I was born. It’s just that simple. It may be the richest place in the country but it didn’t seem that way in the trailer parks along Rt 1 growing up.

    My simple question is whether places like central West Virginia are caught in an infinite loop of below average economic conditions as their best and brightest move elsewhere when they become adults?

  8. Groveton Avatar


    Each June there is a big exodus of Anacostia’s best and brightest heading out of Anacostia to either go to college or find jobs that let them live outside Anacostia. I am not sure there is that big a difference. Maybe those fleeing WV have to run farther.

  9. Groveton Avatar

    Good article. Massey has quite a bad reputation. It seems they deserve it.

  10. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    “My simple question is whether places like central West Virginia are caught in an infinite loop of below average economic conditions as their best and brightest move elsewhere when they become adults?”

    Well it would be a heck of a lot worse if the King of Pork hadn’t managed to get the FBI to move to Clarksburg. Now the area is a developing mini-silicon valley between there and WVU. Drive 20 miles out though and you are literally back in the 1930s.

    I lived about 80 miles from Clarksburg, which was the BIG city (18,000)for most of us out in the sticks. Read about gliders in a school library book, found out they had a club there. I just showed up and talked some doctor into taking me up in exchange for washing the birds. That experience came in handy a couple years later. The Navy had airplanes and electronics. Seemed to be a good fit, in contrast to humping through rice paddies like my friends.

  11. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    re: “get the FBI to move to Clarksburg.”

    folks should understand how profound this statement is.

    To wit:

    what would Clarksburg (and old lumber town) look like today without the FEDS providing jobs there?

    What about the other places in WVa that don’t have benefit of the Fed largess?

    What is NoVa look like if more of the Fed agencies were moved to more of WVa aka Clarksburg?

    and finally this: –

    ” Isn’t the problem that smart people like you leave places like central WVa after they get their education and start their work career? I mean no disrespect to you but if well educated people won’t stay somewhere – how do you generate economic improvement?”

    No disrespect Groveton – but this illustrates a profound lack of understanding about economics…

    you cannot make a place economically prosperous by putting intelligent and educated people there…

    If it were that simple.. we’d be able to do exactly what EMR is advocating…

    which is pick a place.. design it to be functional.. by sprinkling the correct amount of jobs.. to support the people who live there…

    .. and it simply does not work this way….

    Clarksburg could be overflowing with intelligent and educated people and without the FBI – they are economically “toast”.

    Many WVA towns have scads of educated people living in them but they don’t “cause” jobs to happen..

    though .. someone could/show show how wrong I am in thinking this… and help me understand.. if they think I’m wrong…

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    I’ve been back to the Clarksburg area several times in the past 10 years and it has improved markedly. Here is why:

    (1) Sen. Byrd has earmarked the plae so much you have the FBI fingerprint center and other tech facilities. This has helped replace mined out coal and glass factories that started to shut down in the 1950s.

    (2) Interstate 79, erected after I left, makes travel much easier.

    (3) Economic development folks have used the I-79 corridor to recruit a number of tech industries, mostly small-scale aviation.

    (4) Although there are large deep coal mines in the area, a lot of the coal they used to mine in the early 1960s and earlier is either gone or too polluting. Coal there tends to be higher in sulfur and slightly lower in heat. I don’t believe there is much met coasl there for steel. The really good met and steam coal is in a separate field stretching from southern West Virginia to east Kentucky to SW Virginia. That’s where much of today’s coal controversy is.

    (5) Northern and central West Virginia have hills of a more rolling nature. In southern W.Va. they are steeper with the distinctive creek with the footbridge over it, hollow, rail line and then mountain format. This makes surface mining a lot more polluting and mountaintop removal even moreso. I don’t think there is any mountaintop removal mines in the central and northern parts of the state.

    Peter Galuszka

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    Point taken on young people. What you say is generally true. When you live in a rural or semi-rural area, there really aren’t that many opportunities unless you can take over Daddy’s or Mommy’s business. It would be OK if you could become a professional, doctor or lawyer, and move back there, but anything else is dicey.
    In journalism, to quote Mark Twain, freedom of the press is a fact only for people who own the press. You can’t expect to do much good on a little paper if the owner is going to keep a lid on real news which is almost always what happens.
    Example: when I graduated from college up near Boston in 1974, I went back to my little hometown newspaper in North Carolina. A couple of months later, I was covering the Joan Little case — the one involving a dead white jailer and an escaped young black woman. Her issue became and international cause. I learned (through my dad who learned from the local medical examiner) that the dead jailer was found with his clothes pretty much off and there was clear evidence of sexual activity — facts that tended to help the black female escapee. Well, the publisher absolutely refused to publish that info. We finally did when he was out of town, but you see what I mean.
    In West Virginia, there is some excellent journalism done in environmental stuff by the Charleston Gazette and reporter Ken Ward. But it is hard to be a crusader when oen industry domiantes everything the way coal does.
    SOrry, it’s just the reality and is why youing klids move out.
    Peter Galuszka

  14. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    Just FYI – there is extensive surface coal mining in Northern WVa around the towns of Thomas and Davis…

    which you can see here:


    the Potomac consists of a North Fork and a South Fork – and the North Fork is so full of acid that it is orange and lifeless almost until it confluences with it’s other fork.

    The Tygart River which flows through Clarksburg also has acid problems along with the Cheat River which form the Monongahela River which meets up with the Allegheny River just outside of Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River… on it’s way to the Gulf of Mexico.

    but everyone should keep in mind that the mountaintop clearing and acid drainage in West Va is not so much do to a lack of educated West Virginians as it is that there is a strong market for coal in places like NoVa.

    so.. when you turn on your computer…microwave.. hot tub… etc.. you are helping to blow the tops off the mountains in Wva and put acid in their rivers AND … mercury in OUR rivers AND… the nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay that some say is killing it.

    Talk about you location specific “subsidies”…….

    EMR..secure in his Warrenton abode.. is part and parcel of the destruction of WVa.

    oh.. an I’m just as guilty.. too but if I could pay $50 more a month for electricity to have it not result in mountaintop mining and acidification of rivers.. I would.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    How about $100, $200, or $400 a month more?

    $50 not to blast the tops off might just be the tip of the,er, iceberg.


  16. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    I dunno. I’m not sure I’ve seen the “costs” of providing electricity from less polluting sources .. it might well be 100..200 more a month.

    And as EMR says then we’d all be paying more of our location specific costs..


    of course… the folks in alpha/beta communities would have to pay more because they would not own their own site to plant a solar panel… and they would have to build even more power lines to the solar farms in Facquier ….. where the enviroweenies would go berserk…

  17. Anonymous Avatar

    I think you could pretty much count on doubling your electric bill if we had to go all renewables right now. That would be a real budget buster for a lot of families.

    But you are rtight about one thing, no one is going to be happy when they see the results of where this is going. Not the right, not the left, not the greens.

    Berserk is not too strong a word, for what we may see.


  18. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    Many..if not most.. will seek ways to reduce their bills dramatically.

    Energy efficiency and conservation will become much more serious endeavors and much less “greenwashing” buzzwords.

    in the end – we will use much less electricity much like the folks who switch from a fuel hogging vehicle to a sipper.

    it can be gradually phased in… like fuel standards for cars has been…

  19. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    so.. in BR, we often blather on about “location specific costs and subsidies” and here in Peter’s tome about WVa – we have a dead-on example.

    Your “share” of coal for electricity for your home.. is about a half ton a day.

    Imagine that you would – yourself contract to receive that much coal everyday at your home and then would burn it to produce electricity for your house.

    Imagine that your coal came directly to your house from a mountaintop being removed in WVa.

    In fact, this is what you do – but you just pay someone else to handle all the messy details.

    or would you start looking for a company that sold “environmentally-friendly” …. “green” coal mined by poor folks deep in the earth who had no other means to survive anyhow?

    So we sort of Demonize Massey Coal for being a “bad” company that despoils WVa… ostensibly because.. they really don’t have to.. and could mine the coal more “environmentally responsibly”.

    Could they? Could any company do this in “an environmentally responsible” way?

    Would we say: “Okay.. now is the time to stop Mountaintop removal – outlaw it forever – and take the hit on our electric bills….let’s say 50 bucks a month.. for instance.

    Or what if your electric company starts offering you Green power..certified to NOT come from coal that came from mountaintop removal for say …. $50-100 more a month?

    And the money would be spent on retraining the WVa coal miners in putting up wind turbines and making solar panels instead of blasting mountaintops

    How many of us would sign up for the higher rates?

    How many of us would start donating to the enviroweenies to stop all this madness [sic]?

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    Re: Location specific etcetera.
    The problem as I see it is not so much the costs of energy production (although they are key), it is the structure that has been built up over the years. The electric utility industry had been using a mix of coal, oil, gas, water, for years to egernate power. Look at the TVA in the 1930s and 40s. (Of course, TVA later switched to huge coal plants) Vepco had a lot of opil fired plants into thr 1960s, but oil prices skyrocketed — due almost entirely to global political crisises — in 1973 and 1979. So, the industry started switching to coal in a big way in the 1970s and 1980s.
    Big utilities like Ohio’s AEP started building huge mine-mouth plants. Wyoming’s Powder iver Basin opened up with low sulfur but low heat coal that was shipped to utilities in Texas, Florida, the MidWest and other places. That coal, unlike Central Appalachia, is easy and cheap to mine because it is in 80-foot or so seams — not 48 inches — and the land is rolling. It is easier to reclaim. Problem is, it is far away from anywhere (I have visited the site a couple times — once when I worked for a DC-based coal newsletter.)
    Anyway, the idea of big, base-loaded coal fired plants has assumed a kind of “too big to fail” mantra. There are other ways, such as using a series of smaller plants. Back 10 years ago or so, all kinds of utilities from big ones to litttle coops, were building “merchant” goas plants to kick in during peak hours to add extra electricity. Then gas prices spiked and hundreds of plans died.
    The problem with your arguyment is that we are captive to a major shift in energy generation that is really three or four or five decades old. Coal is cheap, but it has a big footprint and has big messes at every stage of its use. The problem is to switch to a new system of generation that is not based on singular, big, huge plants. The utilities like them because they are used to them and have lots of supporters, civil engineers, railroads, construction firms, etc. — everybody gets a taste.
    But there can be major shifts in energy use. Look what Rockefeller did. He foresaw the end of whale oil as a source of light in homes everywhere. He changed the system, introduced fossil fuel, saved a lot of whales, but we’re stuck with the rest.

    Peter Galuszka

  21. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    I cannot disagree with a word of what you wrote Peter.

    But.. I don’t think we change… or even think about change.. or the need to change… as long as most of us think the “problem” is the big bad mining companies “raping” WVa…

    it’s too easy and too convenient for many to not acknowledge that it is their own home that is causing the mountaintop blasting.. (made necessary as you say by the way coal is embedded in the WVa terrain).

    But.. we could buy coal from the big pits out west and even in Ohio .. more expensive.. and it would throw a lot of WVa folks out of work….unless we shipped more FBI-type jobs their way.

    not to go off on a tangent here.. but isn’t it a bit ironic that NoVa claims a powerhouse economy and they gripe about RoVa sucking at the NoVa teat… when NoVa is essentially powered by the same source as those FBI jobs in Clarksburg.

    In Clarksburg.. those jobs are “earmark” pork that somehow Clarksburg did not “earn” but got by skilled political skulldudgery… but FBI Jobs at Quantico are righteous contributors to the NoVa economy?

    So if NoVa had a giant coal seam below it.. they’d disown it in favor of the “cleaner” jobs. for sure…

    but in WVa .. what choice do they have if they don’t get more of those Fed Jobs?

    so.. we give them jobs.. supply electricity to NoVa with it’s “clean” industry..

    and NoVa… essentially exports the dirtier tasks needed to provide it with electricity…

    so.. instead of calling a location specific subsidy a spade and spade – we call it what? Oh thats right. It’s an “Urban Support Region”?

    hmmm… now I AM confused.. what is the difference between an Urban Support Region and a location-specific subsidy…??

    I would challenge all Functional Settlement Pattern affectionadoes to explain why electricity is not among the larger location-specific subsidies – if not the largest.

    why not have WVa miners convert to building these things:

    Mini Nuclear Power Plants Could Power 20,000 Homes


    ..instead of coal?

    hey.. if we did that.. we’d have to do what Groveton said.. attract highly educated people to WVa to head up the new manufacturing industry.

    I bet that Ray would sign up for two of three of these critters to be on his property and he could make a mint selling “locally-produced” electricity.

  22. Anonymous Avatar

    At current (and recent historical) agricultural prices I’d sign up for almost anything that was more productive and halfway clean.


  23. Anonymous Avatar

    “they gripe about RoVa sucking at the NoVa teat… when NoVa is essentially powered by the same source as those FBI jobs in Clarksburg.”

    Interesting point. I’m not sure the two are related or that two wrongs make a right. People in Montana are paying for federal workers to rid the Metro, As well as the salaries of the workers.

    That doesn’t mean that Montana isn’t still a net benefactor of federal spending.

    Then, given that the money does arrrive in NOA from elsewhere doesn;t mean that NOVA should become a net benefactor to the rest of the state.

    That said, when you need money, you had best go where the money is. The state has good reason to take some money out of NOVA. But conditions there have deteriorzted so much, that the state may kill the goose that laid the golden egg. The facility in Clarksville (and Manassas) may be symptoms of terminal illness.

    See todays WAPO editorial on raising the gas tax. According to the story motorists are now paying more than five times as much in unneceesary auto repairs caused by road damage as they would pay in increased gas taxes.

    The roads I use are in such bad shape they may as well revert to gravel. That will be good for runoff.


  24. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    the problem is that raising the gas tax won’t fix the roads… they’ll use it instead to build more roads and ignore even more needed maintenance.

    Of the billions of dollars already spent every year – we chose to NOT spend it on deficient bridges and roads and instead on new stuff.

    One of the more gratifying aspects to the stimulus is that they are actually requiring some of it to be spent on repair and maintenance.

    but they had to mandate it… if they just distributed the money with no strings.. I can guarantee you that it would not have been spent on deficient bridges and the like.

  25. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    “Hardly anyone welcomes higher gas prices. But Bob Chase, head of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, estimates that a 10-cent increase in the gas tax would cost Virginians an average of $60 a year. Sure beats paying $458.”

    Mr. Chase is well known for never having met a new road he did not like.

    He’s not advocating for fixing the existing deficiencies.. he’s arguing for NEW roads.

    but he’s using the same tired tactic of making the case for increased taxes for repairs and then spend it otherwise.. the old bait and switch…

    except the public has pretty much caught on to it.

  26. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: I didn’t know you had any W VA connections. I think you might like one chapter of the book I wrote. Thanks for getting it. Let me know please – even if you hate it.

    Darrell: I knew I liked the way you think – as your words express it. Now, I know another good connection. My wife is from Beckley. So, I’ve had ties of the heart – and plenty of visits there since 1972.

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