June 2001 (Update in May 2003--see end of article)
Cowen is a modestly thriving crossroads town tucked into the southwestern tip of Webster County, a couple of miles east of the Monongahela National Forest. The mountains in Webster County, about two hours northeast of Charleston, are more like those in Vermont than the crowded funnel-shaped hills in the southern coal fields. These mountains are taller and form long and straight flanks aside the narrow valleys. Just east of Cowen is Big Ditch Wildlife Management area with a smooth lake covering several acres. Unlike Logan, Mingo, Raleigh and Boone County, timbering is on equal footing with coal here. Deep mining had been a way of life for decades, but mountaintop mining is a more recent addition.
The entrance to Addington's Evergreen Mine is off Route 82, about five miles east of Cowen. Go a little further, and you will drive under the conveyor belt for a preparation plant. About a mile further, the valley opens up to a half-mile wide apron with several houses and ample lawns. Here is Roger Hollandsworth's tidy home where he has lived for since the mid-1960s. The yard is filled with flowers, Rose of Sharon and other flowering trees and shrubs. His mother lives just up the road, a bit closer to the mine.
Hollandsworth worked in a deep mine and at a manufacturing plant before retiring. His life was fairly quiet until the blasting began in 1999. Every couple of weeks, there would be a blast like a thunderclap or one that shook the house. A number of times, the blast brought a cloud of dust down on the valley, occasionally tinged to a cloud of orange. "They are hurting us down here," Hollandsworth said. Hollandsworth's mother kept careful records of the blasts, only noting the ones serious enough to be a bother with descriptions like: "Very bad-loud-shook house." After her numerous complaints, the mine now calls her before blasting so she won't be startled.
Blasting became a fact of life for Hollandsworth's neighbors living several miles along Route 82. In fact, during the summer of 2000, someone posted a sign: "Blasting next six miles. "It will blow you off the highway."
Jeff Bowman lives in an older house tucked into the hillside on a bend in the road. Gardens spill down the bank, and he built a pond into the hill behind the house. He has made his living from the mining business. In his two decades with Walker Machinery, Jeff Bowman had been on surface mines hundreds of times when blasts went off. But never had he seen blasts as large as those going off at the mine behind his own home along Route 82, about five miles west of Cowen.Hes right. Evergreen probably ranks in the top five mines in the size of blasts. One fifth of the 104 blasts examined were more than 100,000 pounds, and one was over a million pounds.
"It feels like an earthquake," Bowman said. Sometimes, the blasts have shaken the deer heads off the wall, cracked the windows and made the house shift so doors wont close properly. The water has drained out of the two ponds behind his house, and he cant keep enough in the ponds for his pet fish.
Dust from the blasting filled the long valley three times this summer: once in June, once in July and again on August 2. One day it was so bad that Bowman couldnt see to drive down the road.
For the most part, the residents have dealt mainly with the mine management. In one case early in 2000, an improperly designed blast blew the windows out at the Falls garage, which is usually the closest protected structure. Mr. Falls said that some of the holes of one blast had not gone off. Then when a new blast was set off nearby, the unfired holes went off as well. This was not reported to DEP, however.
When the DEP inspector is called, he does a thorough inspection. Most of the time, he accompanies his findings with a one-page explanation of blasting. Each time, he writes: "Air blasts often feel like ground vibrations and are similar to the sonic booms generated by jets breaking the sound barrier. Air blasts over 115dB are known to be irritating to persons in the area and often result in citizen complaints." Most of the blasts at this mine for which there are decibel readings do exceed 115 dB. In fact, Evergreen got a violation in April 8, 1999 when it blasted 139 dB, well over the 133 dB limit.
In early March 2001, Roger Hollandsworth reported that the blasting is much, much better now. There are still some loud blasts, but there havent been the fumes or the shaking of the past few years. He said DEP inspector Keith Evans is at the mine two or three days a week. He has them adjust the blasts and shoot earlier in the day. Roger and Keith visit regularly so that Keith knows how the blasts are impacting the community. They seem to have developed a plan that could be a model for other communities.
The blasting isn't so bad anymore. But the dust is far worse in the bucolic valley where Roger Hollandsworth lives below the Evergreen mine.
Cowen could be termed a blasting success story. After I focused on the Cowen problems in an in-depth study of blasting at nine mines in 2000, Evergreen hired a new blasting company. DEP inspector Keith Evans developed a close relationship with Roger, usually checking in with him at least once a week. Evans monitored the blasting carefully. In addition, DEP held its only show cause hearing on blasting for Evergreen, because it had received at least three violations in one year. DEP found the company negligent, and the ensuing penalties encouraged better blasting techniques as well.
This is not to say all the blasting problems disappeared. In 2002, at least eight blasts were troublesome enough to generate complaints toDEP. Another loud blast reverberated through the valley in late April 2003. Hollandsworth called Keith Evans, who investigated and found that was one of the largest ground vibrations yet. Evans immediately called the mine to task. "I respect Keith," Hollandsworth said. "Because I think he is honest."
Still, Hollandsworth considers the blasting problems significantly reduced in the past two years. He can't say the same about dust, though. One day in March 2002, the dust was so bad that drivers turned on their headlights to see through the soot as they drove down Route 82. Evans told him regulations control the blasting, but there are no DEP rules on the dust. He did offer to have Evergreen send people to wash his house. Hollandsworth declined. He was afraid the washers might damage something. Evergreen said no when he asked the mine to buy him a power washer. Instead, he bought it himself--and keeps it in use. The top officials from Evergreen did come visit Hollandsworth in late April to ask what they can do to help. "Stop the dust," he told them.
Evergreen seems to have mined all the coal close to Hollandsworth's house and are moving the equipment away. Peace may not come, though. He has heard that another coal company will be mining the other side of the valley--across the road from his house.
And as if mining weren't enough troubles. The loggers have been slashing through the forests about a mile up the road from his house. "It looks like a tornado went through that place," he said.
It's been a long fight to protect the beautiful valley. Sometimes Hollandsworth gets discouraged, with Jeff Bowman appearing to be his only support among his neighbors. "I fought and fought, and these people dont want to stick with me," he said. "Seems like they dont care part of them is working for Evergreen part just dont care. Im only 58 years old, but in my grandkids time they will see what is behind all this this strip wont be any good for nothing anymore except for an airport."