Big Ugly is one of those place names newspaper columnists grab on a slow news day. Add that to Odd and numerous other unusual town names, and it's an easy story. William Weld, former Governor of Massachusetts and budding novelist titled his second book Big Ugly because he liked the name. A political satire with a touch of the current TV show "Mister Sterling," the book tells how an honorable senior senator from Big Ugly, W.V., helps a novice senator maneuver the halls of Congress.
In reality, Big Ugly is a meandering creek stretching nearly 20 miles from Route 119 northeast of Chapmanville in Boone County to where it meets the Guyandotte River in Gill, north of Harts in Lincoln County.
As you drive along the creek, what strikes you first may be the abundance of tall pine trees, their branches swaying above the broad Big Ugly Creek. Hills rise steeply on both sides of the creek, but occasionally enough flat land spreads out for a small farm.
Big Ugly Creek was where Michael Tierney and his wife chose to settle after Michael was drawn to the coalfields to help out after the floods of 1977 that nearly wiped out Williamson in Mingo County. Over the years, the Tierneys and other local residents transformed a vacant elementary school into a community center with a library and computer lab. It houses West Virginia Dreamers, which is sponsored by Step by Step, which Tierney directs. Dreamers provides families who sign up a rich array of field trips and artistic endeavors for their children. One summer they wrote and presented a full evening of short plays about life in their communities. In 2002, Dreamers was one of 19 programs nationwide honored by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change as "Solutions for America." (see article)
The Community Center
Big Ugly Creek is also at the southern end of the state's largest mountaintop removal mine, Arch Coal's Hobet 21. The mine stretches nearly 15 miles from near Julian, north of Madison in Boone County to right above the end of Fawn Hollow (see photo below), which joins Big Ugly, not far from the community center.
Mouth of Fawn Hollow
The Cochrans live at the top of Fawn Hollow. During the summer, the Community Center is the nerve center for a number of volunteer groups, including Americorps, who work with the kids and help renovate homes. When volunteeers want to see a surface mine, Tierney sends them up the Cochrans where they had been able to look out over Hobet 21. In fact, the Cochrans lease rights to mine the surface of more than 100 acres.
For the Cohrans, Hobet 21 has been the best of neighbors. When the blasts began about five years ago, their well water did get smelly and discolored. But Hobet 21 officials provided drinking water and fixed the well. "They were awfully nice about helping us," Cochran said. "The mine comes up here and checks the water all the time." Now when the mine is about to blast, Cochran gets a phone call so nobody is in range of falling rocks.
Cochran is critical of some of his neighbors who have complained about the blasting. "A lot of people complain and shouldn't," he said. "There were people plumb down creek about five miles complaining about their well. They want something done for nothing."
Mining is essential, Cochran believes. "They have to get the coal out to keep the lights on," he said. "Some of those men just work day to day to make a living."
Nonetheless, several of his neighbors seem to have legitimate complaints about the blasting. None of them want the mining to end. But they haven't had the same satisfactory resolution of their problems.
Gail Workman lives within sight of the mouth of Fawn Hollow. The blasting has eased up in the past couple of years. But before that, their house used to shake with regularity, often about the time her son came home from school. "The first time they blasted, they blasted the bathroom window out," Workman said. "I didn't know what it was. We were like, holy cow."
Since their house is nearly 50 years old, the windows are made of cut glass and the frames must be hand built. They just finished repairing the dry wall. There were gaps at the tops of all the walls. Every time there is a blast, she rushed out and checked the clips on the large front window to be sure it wouldn't fall out.
In the beginning, Workman wrote down the times and dates of the blasts. But this was no help when she finally called Hobet 21. Since she had no pre-blast survey to show the previous condition of her house, the mine would not do any repairs.
Her husband's parents, Lacy and Brenda Workman, live nearby, and they had considerable blasting damage as well. They have spent $4,200 on a purification system for their well water because of what they believe is damage from the blasting. They didn't get any help from Hobet 21, and only called the Department of Environmental Protection once. They were told that they live 10 miles from the mine. "I can go on a four-wheeler and take anyone to the job; it's three miles," Lacy Workman said.
In early March, he and neighbors met at the community center about trying to get public water up Big Ugly. There was another concern, though. Brenda Workman's cousin had recently been paid $100 by someone who did core drilling on his property for Massey Energy. He was told that Massey would be mining on Big Ugly within a year. Workman wondered whether public water would be a futile effort. Would Massey just buy (or force) residents out?
A preacher, Workman is strongly in support of mining. "I have parishioners who work on mines," he said. "I've never been against it; I just wish they would stop shaking the houses." He's lived on the creek for nearly 57 years. But the day may be coming, he said, when the mines will force him to leave.
The extent of the blasting problems do seem to be supported by numerous complaints to DEP over several years. Hobet 21 tends to have some of the largest blasts in the state, sometimes 800,000 to more than 1 million pounds of explosives. In fact, DEP twice came close to shutting the mine down over blasting violations. (see story) DEP cited the mine four times between October 1998 and June 1999. Instead of shutting Hobet down, DEP negotiated a settlement whereby the mine would reduce the blasts. That didn't seem to work for long. After more complaints and violations, another threat of shut down was issued in February 2001. Another settlement was negotiated in April 2001, and Hobet agreed to reduce the blasts. If not, DEP said it would immediately shut the mine down.
During the discussions with Hobet, DEP noted at times that it hadn't received any new complaints. This may not accurately show the extent of the blasting problems. A number of the people on Big Ugly, like Gail Workman, did not know they should complain to DEP
In fact, the only way the Billy Baldwins found out about DEP was when he happened to be talking about blasting to someone at the gas station where he works in Chapmanville. They live about three miles east of Fawn Hollow. Yet in May 2002, they finally called DEP about their well that had gone dry.
The home of the Billy Baldwins
The Baldwins live at the mouth of a narrow hollow that backs up the edge of the mountain, probably a couple of miles from the mine. The geology of an area has been found to magnify blasts. However, DEP told the Baldwins they were too far away to have any damage from Hobet 21. "I think it's because we live in this cubby hole," Mrs. Baldwin said. And it wasn't just the Balwdin's well that was damaged. A few years earlier, Mrs. Baldwin's mother's home at Poplar Fork was damaged. They had to hire people to replace the sheet rock. "My mom couldn't find the numbers of anyone to do anything," she said.