The clue to what's happening in Rawl sits in the curve of Rte 49, a half mile before you reach the road to the community. The long blue tanker truck with a sign "Water Only" stands ready to serve clean water to nearby residents. The doors at the bottom are open, revealing the faucets that fill jugs and tanks. It's been there more than a year. How long it will have to stay has yet to be decided by government officials in charge of securing public water.
Rawl is an old coal-mining camp about eight miles east of Williamson. Homes are crowded together along the sides of the narrow road that runs three-fourths of a mile to the base of the mountain. One street branches off to the right and makes a steep climb to the top of a knoll. At the top are three houses, home to James Scott, his sister Emma Webb and their mother. Scott was a longtime UMWA miner. He helped lead union efforts and Massey mines, and did such a good job that Massey promoted him to management. After a stint in an office job, he returned to the deep mine. It was the end of the day, and he and a co-worker were leaving when the roof collapsed. Scott's knee was crushed, and he left the mines for good.
In Scott's front yard, a few steps from the front door, is a decorative well house. Next to it is the squat pipe that designates a drilled well. The quaintness belies the troubled history of this water supply for all three homes.
Rawl was undermined at least twice in the 1970s and 1980s. Gradually, homeowners saw their wells dwindle and the water turn orange and sometimes smelly. The entire community had been destroyed in the flood of 1977. When it was rebuilt, a community water system was installed. By the late 1990s, the water in the system was unusable. When Scott unlocks the door on the small water building and turns on the water. It runs out of the pipe like tomato soup: thick with orange sediment.
In 1992, Scott drilled a well for his house. The deep mining was gone; he thought the well would last. He hadn't considered the A.T. Massey mountaintop mine to the north of the community. In 1994, a blast shook the earth, and the well went dry. In 1996, he drilled another well close to the house, going down 174 feet. It supplied the three houses until Feb. 27, 1998.
The blast came that day like a loose ball bouncing off the mountains. DEP determined later that the shot had exceeded the decibel limit for air blasts. No one had to tell Scott--he lived through it. The vibrations hit his mother's house and ricocheted over to his. The impact was startling: The house moved several inches off its foundation; hinges on the metal door on the kitchen broke loose; the wooden trim atop the kitchen wall cracked; pictures went askew on the living room wall; and Scott himself, who was sitting in a chair, was knocked back against the wall.
His sister, Emma Webb, can point out the damages from that blast and earlier ones. The foundation cracked, as did the fireplace and the kitchen tile. Her water was "nothing but red." She estimated repairs would cost $7,000, money she didn't have with her husband out of work. Since DEP issued a violation for the air blast, she and James were sure Massey would pay for repairs. Four months later, they got a letter from Massey's insurance company: It wasn't going to pay. They filed a lawsuit and eventually settled. Webb got only $3,000, less than half of the repair cost.
In the summer of 1998, Scott was doubtful about the future of his community: "Due to the water system depleted, this community will become another ghost town like Blair. Either people will have to leave here through no choice of their own. Or they will have to stay and live with it."
The water truck is how they are surviving. Scott has lobbied the state and county governments for four years, but so far no water lines have appeared in Rawl. In the past two years, public water has spread out into the farther reaches of the county, like Lenore and Pie. But for Rawl, the small size weighs against the high cost. And for a while, officials couldn't decide whether Matewan or Williamson could provide the water most efficiently. In the Spring of 2001, Rawl was denied funding yet again. Scott hopes that next time will be the charm, and public water might appear in 2002.
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In the late 1980s, a sturdy white church arose at head of Rawl hollow. Larry Brown, the preacher, helped build his house of worship. The footers were nearly two feet wide; steel reinforcements made the concrete stronger. Dressed up in white siding and stained glass windows, the church stood firm until the early 1990s. Then the mine moved onto the mountain above the place of worship.
The blasting damaged the windows; the concrete blocks of the foundation cracked. Long fissures formed in the ceiling. Brown called the mine. The damage was undeniable, they said. But it wasn't the mine's fault, they maintained.
Brown's home is a double-wide trailer nearby. As the mine moved closer, he could see the effects in his house. The front window just exploded. Neither the back door nor the closet doors shut properly. His water turned orange. He never bothered to tell the mine; it was useless, he figured.
"Something's happening to our homes up here and the church up here," he said in the summer of 1998. "I don't know what's causing it; they say they don't know what's causing it. But definitely, there's something causing it. And it needs to be investigated."
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Louise Runyon's home sits halfway up the hill to the Scott family compound. Inside, photos of past Presidents Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower grace her living room. Her son, who lives near Washington, D.C., sends her mementos of the natin's capitol.She likes to keep her house clean and decorative. So the nusisances of the blasting over the past few years have been especially bothersome. Just like her neighbors, she has had a lot of damages: broken dishes and pictures, leaking, cracks in the walls. She had to have the little building out back recovered because the roof was leaking.
The mine told Runyon that a warning signal would precede the blast. She never heard one. Though she is in her 70s, she had to make a lot of the repairs herself. There was no one else to do it. "We don't get much response from them," she said. "They don't seem to think all of the damages are related to blasting. We know better. I've lived here all my life and never had nothing like this."