Bettie Wriston inspects a valley
fill at the Costain Coal mine in Clear Creek after the June 1, 1997 flood
Tracy and Bettie Wriston have lived their entire lives in Clear
Creek. Tracy worked in deep mines and is now retired. They live up the right fork of Clear
Creek on a farm once owned by Tracy's father. Bettie works at the school at the end of the
hollow on the main road that runs from Beckley to Whitesville.
The Wristons know what it's like to live below a mine. In the late 1960s, the mountains
behind their farm were being strip mined. A heavy rain caused a washout from the mine. The
creek overflowed its banks; their road was closed.
They thought strip mines were gone from the area. But in the early 1990s, Costain Coal
began mining the same mountains behind their farm. About a mile behind the house, the mine
has built a large pond to catch the runoff from two valley fills. At the beginning of May,
Tracy and Bettie Wriston trudged across the creek and through the field and woods to the
pond. It stretched for nearly an acre and was full to the brim. On the cool Spring late
afternoon, the water was dark and clear. Above it to the right, trees had been shaved from
the sides of the valley. Dirt and rocks had been tossed down as the valley was becoming a
valley fill. As Bettie walked up the road, she commented: "If this (the pond) goes,
everything from here to the school will go."
When the rain fell on the evening of June 1, the water rushed down the creek past the
Wriston's farm. "It sounded like a train," she said. Their road was closed for
several days. And the parking lot of the school was so flooded that it couldn't be used as
a temporary shelter the night of the storm.
Harvey Maynor lives
about half a mile
Wristons up Toney's Fork in Clear Creek. For several years, a valley fill ended within 400
feet of his house, which is across the road from the fill. His wife had been expecting a
washout from the fill. There were a couple of short downpours on the evening of June 1,
but none were that hard, the family recalled. Maynor's son had just come back to the house
after checking the pond at the base of the fill. All of a sudden something collapsed along
the left side of the fill (seen above). Debris and water filled the tiny pond. A wave of
water, mud and rocks washed over the side, flattening the grass near where Maynor is
standing. Some came down the hill into the Maynors' porch and living room. Another torrent
went to the right, leaving rocks under a nearby mobile home. The mine was given a
violation by the state Division of Environmental Protection. The entire valley fill was
rebuilt later in the year. After some delays, the mine paid for the Maynors' damages.
||Nearly 30 years ago, rocks and dirt tumbled off the hills from the surface
mines above Clear Creek, about 20 miles southwest of Beckley. In one particularly large
storm, a car belonging to Ellis Bailey was buried up to its windows by rocks. And it
stayed covered for years, looking as if cement had been poured around it for abstract
art. After a number of washouts from the mines, Bailey and
other Clear Creek residents decided they had had enough.. Accompanied by Vista volunteers,
they journeyed twisty mountainous roads for several hours to the state legislature. A bit
awed by the cavernous House and Senate rooms, nonetheless they managed to convey their
plight to the state legislators. The residents of Clear Creek couldn't return to the
Legislature to witness the final vote. As rain sheeted down the windows, they huddled
around the black and white television for the news. Victory. The state had passed a new
law controlling surface mining. That law later became the model for parts of the federal
Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, passed in 1977.
The laws have controlled the mines over the years. But now the mountaintop mines are much
larger. Three years ago, Rex and Lena Stover, who live about three miles east of Clear
Creek lost their well after blasting began for the mine above their house. For Lena, the
problem was all to close to home. Ellis Bailey was her grandfather.