The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Sylvester's Dustbusters

by Kari Lydersen

Feisty elders fend for town, homes

This sidebar is associated with a full-length news article, West Virginia Town Fights Blanket of Coal Dust.

After hard lives in coal country, Pauline Canterberry, 76, and Mary Miller, 75, thought they might get to sit back and enjoy life in Sylvester, West Virginia, the once-quiet and comfortable town along a bend of the Coal River.

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But since mining company Elk Run’s prep-plant expansion, they say they haven’t had a moment of peace from dust, noise and stress. And so they have tried not to give the company a moment of peace, either.

Canterberry, who has medaled in swimming and track in the Senior Olympics, quit her seat on the city council to dedicate herself to fighting the coal company full time.

People have come to know the duo as the "dustbusters" for shenanigans that include going door to door collecting dust samples on white cloth wipes from people’s screen doors and furnaces; parading around town with the soiled wipes tied around their necks; and knocking at the mayor’s house with the black dust smeared across their faces.

"We have spies all over town," said Canterberry. "If you see any dust, you give us a call and we come and film it."

Once, for example, the cook at the local school called and reported plumes of dust blowing through the school grounds. Canterberry and Miller taped it, and the video was introduced as evidence in lawsuit proceedings against Elk Run.

In March, they also went to Washington, DC to lobby for the Clean Water Protection Act, which would limit mountaintop removal mining in the area by rolling back Bush administration changes to the definition of what kind of mining waste can be deposited in valleys and rivers.

Canterberry’s husband died of black-lung disease at age 69; silicosis, another disease associated with mining, killed her father. Canterbury fought with the government and coal-company lawyers for nine-and-a-half years to get federal black-lung benefits for her husband, an arduous process since the coal companies are responsible for paying the benefits and regularly appeal the federally awarded benefits every step of the way.

She declined to have her husband buried in the area, afraid the local graveyard will be ruptured or flooded by strip mining operations. But as long as she’s alive, Canterberry said she refuses to leave Sylvester.

During a lunch of homemade lemonade, corn bread, soup and other dishes they prepared for visiting journalists and observers, they were by turns sober, sweet and full of humor at the struggle they have found themselves in.

Miller good-naturedly boasted how, one Thanksgiving Day, a pro-company group called the Massey Spouses tried to hold a Thanksgiving Dinner for the community, and she dressed up as a turkey and paraded around out front, until the state police were called.

"I knew the trooper, he called back to report ‘There’s nothing here but an old turkey,’" Miller recounted.

Added Canterberry, "When you lose everything you’ve worked for your whole life, you have to laugh your way through it."

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This Sidebar originally appeared in the May 9, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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