Photo by Mark Schmerling
The news started spreading this weekend, and was confirmed by a short obituary notice in this morning’s paper:
James “Jimmy” Weekley, 74, of Blair, died Aug. 22, 2014.
For those who weren’t aren’t or don’t remember, Mr. Weekley was one of the lead plantiffs in the first major court case to challenge mountaintop removal. He was one of a few very brave citizens who put a lot on the line to try to take a stand for their home. Ironically, his death came just as many others who were involved in that fight were celebrating the release of the film “Moving Mountains,” which focuses on another early mountaintop removal activist, Patricia Bragg, and brings to the screen the story the great reporter Penny Loeb starting telling in a magazine article and then later explained more fully in her book.
UPDATED: In another ironic development, a federal appeals court in Washington has ruled today that the Sierra Club and other groups have legal standing to challenge the removal of the Blair Mountain historic site from the National Register of Historic Places.
One of my most memorable experiences covering the mountaintop removal story over the last 17 years was the day back in July 1998, when Arch Coal lawyer Blair Gardner paid a visit to Mr. Weekley’s home in Pigeonroost Branch, near Blair in Logan County. I’m not sure the story really did the scene justice, but among other things I wrote:
Arch Coal Inc. lawyer Blair Gardner sipped ice water on James Weekley’s front porch swing Monday afternoon. Gardner walked up Pigeonroost Branch and listened to Weekley reminisce about hunting squirrels on the mountainside and fishing with his grandchildren in the stream.
Hummingbirds hovered around feeders hung on Weekley’s porch. Beech, oak and walnut trees covered the surrounding hills. The sounds of the flowing stream hung in the background.
Gardner’s company plans to cut off these mountaintops to reach the coal seams underneath. Leftover rock and dirt would be dumped in a valley fill that will bury 1 miles of Pigeonroost Branch and stretch to within 1,000 feet of Weekley’s home.”This is a beautiful hollow,” Weekley told Gardner. “This is my life here – 58 years of it. I don’t want to see it destroyed.”
Gardner responded, “It is pretty. We’ve been enjoying the birds while we sit here.”
The story continued:
During part of the two-hour visit Monday, Gardner and Dal-Tex General Manager Mark White sat on Weekley’s porch swing while Weekley recited his concerns about the proposed new mine.
Weekley said blasting from the existing mine has already damaged the foundation of his home. Dust from the mine makes it hard for Weekley and his wife to keep their siding clean. Noise from heavy equipment is constant.
“It continues 24 hours a day, scraping and rattling,” Weekley said. “That’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week I have that when I’m sitting here on the porch.”
Gardner and White responded that the Dal-Tex operation complies with current environmental rules. Gardner scribbled notes on a bright yellow legal pad.
“I think that it’s important that we listen to everything you have to say so we’re not going to dispute or argue about anything,” Gardner said. “I’m not disputing that you can feel a blast and I’m not saying I don’t believe you when you say it knocked a picture off your wall. But the record shows we’re not in violation of the regulations.”
Weekley asked how the coal company officials would feel if “a coal company or a chemical company or a logging company came in and destroyed where you lived all your life.”
Gardner responded, “I don’t deny your sincerity, Mr. Weekley. When you say you are attached to your home and your property, you are sincere.”
White said, “I can’t say how I’d feel. I try to empathize with Mr. Weekley, but I can’t say how I’d feel.”
The piece concluded:
Weekley also took Gardner, White and a herd of reporters and camera crews on a walk up Pigeonroost Branch.
At times, the group walked along the creek in areas Arch Coal plans to bury under a valley fill.
“Look around you, sir,” Weekley said. “Look at how beautiful it is.”
Just a few hundred feet up the hollow from Weekley’s house, his 84-year-old mother, Sylvia, sat on the porch of her own home. “This is her homeplace,” Weekley said. “I was born here.”
“When you come in here and do this, all I’m going to have left are memories,” Weekley said. “Money can’t buy my memories. Look at all the species of trees and plants that are going to be destroyed. Why? Why? Why?”
Gardner said, “The reason, Mr. Weekley, is that we have a resource that is valuable and that the market wants. That is coal.”
Photo of Spruce Mine site by Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Southwings
A lot has happened since that day. U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II ruled for Mr. Weekley and the citizen groups in a landmark decision that was later overturned on appeal. Other mountaintop removal cases have come and gone, each one pressuring the industry and adding to the weight of evidence — now very clear — about the practice’s impacts on Appalachian hills, hollows and streams. New studies continue to raise warnings about how residents who live near mountaintop removal face increased risks of serious illness and premature death.
The Obama administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vetoed a key permit for the Spruce Mine, ensuring that most of the operation proposed near Mr. Weekley’s home would not be mined. Most West Virginia elected officials continue to try desperately t not confront the key facts about mountaintop removal, choosing instead to spend public money to continue to fight in court the fairly meager efforts of EPA to do much to control mining.
Meanwhile, coal miners in Southern West Virginia — like those who got laid off when Judge Haden initially blocked the Spruce Mine — continue to lose their jobs in an economic transition that has its roots in cheap natural gas and the mining out of most of the easy-to-get coal reserves in Central Appalachia. As with mountaintop removal, elected officials refuse to face those facts, meaning they do little in the way of serious efforts to diversify the coalfield economy. Instead, they just blame everything on President Obama, leaving us with political campaigns that involve little discussion of crucial issues.
But what still rings true are some of the comments that Mr. Weekley made when he testified in U.S. District Court here in Charleston in that very first mountaintop removal trial, when Public Justice lawyer Jim Hecker asked him to talk about Pigeonroost Hollow and why he wanted to save it:
To me it’s a rain forest. It’s a beautiful place with clear water, with every aquarium life in it, all different species of hardwoods, between two mountains that is very, very beautiful to me.