Mining is nothing new for the residents of Ragland. The mountains around this community between Logan and Delbarton have been mined in some fashion since the 1930s. Many of the men in the community spent their working lives deep underground in tunnels stretching half a dozen miles.
Many Ragland residents don't oppose the mines, underground or mountaintop. But they have seen so much damage, that they are angry -- and frustrated that politicians and public officials fail to help them.
Ragland probably has more mine-related problems concentrated in a small area than many communities. With mines snaking under the community, it is virtually impossible to have a well that isn't contaminated. So Ragland finally got a public water system about three years ago. But that system also draws its water from the deep mines. Those mines, often half a century old, are filled with discarded oil, asbestos, human waste and other potentially toxic chemicals. The public water is treated. But tests aren't required for all contaminants in the mines. The public water to some people's houses, including James Bailey's, still has orange water and black residue. The Baileys drink only bottled water.
Since Ragland squeezes between the mountains and the river, most houses have no room for adequate septic systems. Many pour raw sewage directly into the river. Yet, government officials can't find the money to extend the public sewer system to Ragland. "They built a flood wall for $275 million in Williamson. But we can't even have water," says one Ragland resident.
What concerns many Ragland residents the most is the slag dam near the top of the mountains. It stretches nearly three football fields across and is twice as long. Originally it was about 140 feet deep. But waste coal covers the bottom, so the water depth is considerably less. The watery dump was used for nearly 30 years until it reached capacity a few years ago. Since the dam sits nearly a mile off the road and reachable only on four wheelers and steep roads, those just passing through wouldn't know it exists. But for the Ragland residents, it lies above the community, a dark watery reminder of the tragedy at Buffalo Creek. The community has been evacuated at least once because of concerns that dam would break. People who have worked around these kinds of dams find this one of the most worrisome. They believe it was improperly constructed, though improvements were made more recently.
Anyone driving to Ragland should proceed slowly. The overweight trucks are running several loads of coal a week out of the preparation plant to the railroad. Roads already weakened by winter weather are developing treacherous craters.
As if bad water, lack of public sewers, a looming lake and pot-holed roads weren't enough. Soon a White Flame Energy mountaintop mine will move in at the end of one hollow.
One of the two valley fills on the Ragland side of the mine will come down this valley. The hillside on the left is built from
waste coal that was dumped there in the 1980s and covered with a thin layer of soil. Patches of usable coal have risen to the surface of the hill. The coal is creating acid runoff that has turned the stream orange. James Bailey, whose house is closest to the valley fills, is worried that the hillside isn't stable enough for the mine coming behind it.
Bailey and others have been notified that they are eligible for pre-blast surveys. However, some people who appear to live within half a mile (the required distance for notification) haven't been notified. "They can blast within 300 feet of your home," one resident said. "People don't believe that."