Sylvester, West Virginia; May 9, 2006 – Nestled in the Coal River Valley, Sylvester, West Virginia was once a place where people came to get away from the coal mines â€“ a comfortable village inhabited largely by retired miners.
"It wasnâ€™t a coal camp," said Mary Miller, 75, who has lived most of her life in the area.
An underground mine and several strip mines operated near Sylvester. "But they didnâ€™t bother us and we didnâ€™t bother them," said Miller.
Then in 1998 the Elk Run Coal Company significantly expanded its coal processing and loading facilities right next to Sylvester. Elk Run had operated a coal washing and preparation facility not far from Sylvester since the 1980s, but a thin ridge of land created a barrier between the plant and the town. In the early 1990s, however, the company strip mined the ridge, turning it into a flat plateau on which it built a coal crushing facility â€“ called a stoker plant â€“ and an adjacent coal loading facility.
Residents recount the town was suddenly covered in fine black coal dust from the stoker plant and loading area. The company also built long conveyor beltlines that snake through the hills bringing coal from nearby mines to a preparation plant. Hundreds of railroad cars per day are filled with processed, pulverized coal for transport to coal-burning power plants, and coal trucks come hurtling in and out along the narrow winding roads. The accompanying noise, bright lights and black dust ruined the quality of life for many residents.
â€œWithin a month we were covered in coal dust. It looked like the sun was even covered.â€
Now, almost a decade later, even after a lawsuit led to limitations on the amount of dust Elk Run can expel, some residents still feel like they are hostages to the coal processing plant.
"We knew it would destroy the town," said resident Pauline Canterberry, 76, noting that the wind normally blows west to east, and the plant is on the west side of the town. Along with dust from the newer facility, the flattening of the ridge meant dust from the previous preparation plant could blow more easily onto the town.
"Within a month we were covered in coal dust," Canterberry said. "It looked like the sun was even covered. It would be in your hair, everything. It would come through your windows like they werenâ€™t even there."
The residents, most of them senior citizens, also worry how the dust affects their health. With miners who work both underground and in open air strip mines, coal dust is known to cause black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, a term referring to a number of obstructive respiratory diseases that often leads to severe illness or death. Agency for Research on Cancer says studies on its carcinogenic properties have not been comprehensive.
After the dust inundation started, residents first tried going to the state Division of Environmental Protection (DEP) with their complaints. Canterberry said DEP officials told them to collect dust samples around town.
The dust prevented residents from socializing outdoors or even keeping their windows open.
"We took samples every seven to eight days from ten different places around town for two and a half years, and the DEP never even came to pick them up," she said. "They were just trying to keep us busy."
In June 2000, the state DEP finally investigated the situation in Sylvester and gave Elk Run a three-day suspension as punishment for environmental violations regarding its coal dust. The company appealed to the state Surface Mining Board and lost.
In 2001, more than half of the townâ€™s approximately 200 residents filed a lawsuit against Elk Run and its parent company Massey Energy, one of the countryâ€™s largest coal companies and the one that dominates this region. The suit charged the companies with violations including negligence, creating a nuisance, trespassing and violating the West Virginia Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act.
Massey officials did not return a call for this story.
"Since the facility was expanded, residents of Sylvester have helplessly witnessed the deliberate destruction of their community," said the lawsuit, filed on residentsâ€™ behalf by attorney Brian Glasser. "Dust, noise and other pollution from the facility caused by the defendantsâ€™ activitiesâ€¦have made life in the community unbearable and have left the property in the community nearly, if not entirely, valueless."
With the 1998 expansion, Elk Run came to within hundreds of feet of some peopleâ€™s homes, which the lawsuit said has dramatically decreased property values.
"I canâ€™t sell my house for enough to afford another one, and at my age whoâ€™s going to hire me to work to earn money to move?" asked Canterberry.
Meanwhile, Elk Run does not have to pay taxes to the town because the plant is just outside Sylvesterâ€™s limits. Glasser said he pushed the mayor of Sylvester to initiate annexation proceedings, but the mayor refused. Staff at the mayorâ€™s office did not answer the phone when The NewStandard tried several times to reach it.
The lawsuit noted that the dust prevented residents from socializing outdoors or even keeping their windows open, driving up electric bills from air conditioning and making residents feel "like prisoners in their own homes."
In 2002, the DEP ordered Elk Run to install a large nylon dome, about the size of a football field, over its coal piles. In 2003, as the lawsuit was going to trial, the dome was torn because of coal piled improperly next to it.
In February 2003 a judge dropped Massey from the lawsuit and made Elk Run the sole defendant. In April 2003, a jury found the company guilty of most of the charges, and six months later a judge ordered the company to pay $473,000 in damages and hundreds of thousands in attorneysâ€™ and expert witnessesâ€™ fees. The judge also ordered Elk Run to repair the torn dome over the coal piles, build baghouses over parts of the stoker plant and loading facility, buy a street sweeping machine for the town, limit the number of coal trucks traveling through Sylvester and continually monitor dust expulsion levels.
It is not clear how much the coal dust containment measures are costing the company. During the trial, the companyâ€™s expert witness placed costs at $10 million to $29 million over the facilityâ€™s expected 30 to 40 year life span; the defendantâ€™s expert witness said it would cost less than $2 million. Elk Run did not return calls for comment on this story.
Attorney Brian Glasser said the lawsuit was a real victory for the town, establishing "the right of people to sue for dust coming off a [company] property."
Residents are glad for the injunction, and think the requirements have made some difference. But they say their woes are far from over. They still collect samples of dust coating their town, and noise and other aggravations from the operations remain constant.
These worries are compounded by structural problems with the dome, which was again punctured in early March 2006. Weeks later the operation still appeared to be partitioned only by a haphazardly hung mesh wind screen. Meanwhile several other lawsuits by individual residents have been filed against Elk Run and are pending.
Most of the residents, including Canterberry and Miller, donâ€™t oppose mining altogether. Noting the economic dependence on mining in the region, they say they do not mind the underground and strip mines in the area or even the original coal prep plant across the ridge; they just want to see the stoker plant and loading facility closed or drastically scaled back and better-contained in order to reduce the noise and dust.
"These people came in and destroyed us," Canterberry said. "Why should we have to leave? They should leave."