By MIKE TONY, Charleston Gazette-Mail
EUNICE, Virginia (AP) – Eunice should have been Becky Rectenwald’s place of residence.
Dust settled there instead.
Rectenwald, 58, moved from Marmet to the former mining town in County Raleigh almost four years ago for cleaner air and a larger yard for her dogs as she continued to care for her mother .
Eight months ago, with a 15% lung capacity with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and bronchitis, Rectenwald left her 79-year-old mother in Eunice in the care of her 18-year-old granddaughter.
The filters on Rectenwald’s oxygen machine and ventilator had turned black. She had to go.
“The way we have to live is sad,” says Rectenwald. “I can’t be with my family because of this.”
The portable fan that Rectenwald used did nothing to mask her words of desperation as she sat trapped between the fan and a picnic table at Marsh Fork High School Memorial Park on an unusually warm spring evening. Rectenwald traveled Coal River Road with her sister, with whom she has been staying in Elkview for over an hour.
She was surrounded under the pavilion by a dozen former neighbors.
They were also there to purify the air.
“We would just like the dust to be reduced,” said Sandra Stewart, 71.
The 32-year-old Stewart house on the northern edge of Eunice is the closest coal pile to the Marfork’s Coal Company’s Black Eagle underground mine, about 300 yards away.
Residents of Eunice said the mine had wreaked havoc on their health and homes shortly after it began operations in 2018, its coal dust permeating their lungs and living rooms, its fans roaring so loudly that it became impossible to speak outside, its explosion causing pictures to fall on the walls and damage the foundations of the houses.
Many residents of the community living closest to the Black Eagle mine have been gathering since April for weekly meetings to talk about the mine and what to do about it.
The organizer of the meetings, Shelia Walk, lived 42 of her 49 years in Eunice.
This is the home for her and her husband, who worked in the mine for 13 years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and fired.
It is the home of his parents, including his father, a disabled veteran who has had fewer asthma attacks since moving to a part of the community further away from the Black Eagle mine.
It is the home of her 5 month old grandson, who was born prematurely and who once had respiratory problems.
Walk’s house was owned by her brother before his death, so she doesn’t feel like straying from it.
âI would love to stay here because I will never be this close to my family,â Walk said. âIf something is wrong, I can walk to my daughter’s (house). If I had to do this, I could walk to my parents’ (house). I never see us being able to find houses this close to each other.
But standing at the edge of the picnic shelter facing his neighbors, Walk achieved what has become an increasingly common finding in recent months in Eunice.
“If they can, I would appreciate it if the dust and noise ceased.” Otherwise, they would have to relocate us, âWalk said to her neighbors’ applause.
Walk spoke about Alpha Metallurgical Resources, the parent company of Marfork Coal Company in Bristol, Tennessee.
If Alpha doesn’t pay them to move, residents want the company to do at least more to reduce coal dust pollution, a change that would set a positive trend after what they said was an end to pollution. sound of mine fans in April. .
But residents of Eunice said they had not been able to reach representatives from Alpha, and Walk said no one from the mine had spoken to residents about operations there.
Alpha did not respond to a list of questions for this story.
âIt’s like nobody cares,â Rectenwald said.
Walk counted the number of homes in its section of Eunice closest to the Black Eagle mine that house residents with disabilities.
Across the picnic shelter, his next door neighbor Rick Jones, 65, said he often had to change his furnace filter.
âWe’re not even enjoying a month,â said Alleson Sneed, Rectenwald’s granddaughter.
Residents of Eunice said the quickly getting dirty air filters helped drive their electricity bills sky-high.
They fear that the value of their property will move in the opposite direction.
The prevalence of fixed income in Eunice compounds the community’s mining problem.
Annabel Aliff, 57, was not at the reunion but would like Alpha to buy her out as well.
Aliff says she was tricked into applying for the Department of Health and Human Resources Low Income Assistance Program for the first time in two decades due to rising heating and cooling costs of her house, because she avoids letting in natural air.
“I hate asking for help, but sometimes what are you going to do?” Aliff said.
When Aliff moved in with her in 2002, there were barbecues and bonfires.
âI might even go lie down in the sun,â Aliff said. “But I wouldn’t even want to lie in the sun now because if I went out with sunscreen on me, the dust would stick all over me.”
Aliff does not have a vehicle, but her sister who lives with her and Walk, her neighbor next door, are driven.
âGod has blessed me with good neighbors,â Aliff said. âI just made a rough deal with the mine. “
THE COAL LEGACY ON THE COAL RIVER MOUNTAIN
The Black Eagle deep mine has suffered two mining license violations since it began operations in 2018, according to data from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection – failure to establish blasting signs in September 2018 and follow-up of excavation and waste on a national road (Route 3 or Coal River route) in March 2019.
But two Alpha subsidiaries – the Marfork Coal Company and Republic Energy – have more than two dozen active mining licenses in County Raleigh and a long history of license violations.
The two subsidiaries have racked up nearly 350 license violations over the past three decades in the Coal River watershed for violations such as lack of sediment control, improper blasting procedures, and out-of-bounds mining activities. permits. Almost 3,000 acres in the watershed were disturbed under mining permits during this period.
According to Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a nonprofit group based in the nearby town of Naoma that opposes the mountain top removal and other mining activities, the total permits active and approved surface mining and sludge dams make up 15% of Coal River Mountain’s approximately 51,000 acres. practices that have had an impact on public health and natural resources.
Walk’s son, Junior, 31, is an outreach coordinator for Coal River Mountain Watch, which owns a home in Eunice and lives in Whitesville, across the border from Boone County. Walk said a lot of mining activity ravaged the Coal River watershed during his lifetime.
Coal River Mountain Watch has opposed recent applications for new and renewed permits for surface mining on the mountain made by Republic Energy, saying dust from the new blasting procedures will put nearby residents at risk. high cancer.
The DEP approved Republic Energy’s recent permit applications, saying they met state requirements for surface mine control and reclamation, forcing the department to issue the permit.
âWhat is happening here is the continuation of a century of exploitation of both the land and the people here,â Walk said in his parents’ garden shortly before the meeting began. âOutside interests like the coal company that operates here got the better of southern West Virginia. “
Some residents would like on-site air quality monitoring, but were unable to obtain it from the state DEP.
Acting DEP spokesperson Terry Fletcher said the agency has air monitoring equipment for federally mandated national ambient air quality standards assessments at sites permanent.
The department’s air quality division will investigate dust and air quality complaints and take enforcement action where appropriate, Fletcher said.
An agency database of citizen complaints shows three about the Black Eagle mine, with the most recent two coming from residents of Eunice in early December regarding noise levels from the mine’s fans.
But Walk said she had called the DEP more than 10 times to report mine noise and dust and never got an effective response.
Raleigh County Commission Chairman Dave Tolliver declined to comment through County Administrator Jay Quesenberry, who added officials had not heard any complaints about dust or noise from the mine.
State Senator Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, declined to comment, saying he was out of state last week and could not communicate with anyone about the situation. Roberts added that no one had contacted his office about Marfork.
State Delegate Christopher W. Toney, R-Raleigh, could not be reached for comment.
There is no sign of slowing down operations at the Black Eagle mine.
Alpha COO Jason Whitehead noted a steady improvement in coal thickness at the mine during the company’s fourth quarter 2020 earnings call in March and plans to continue the mining there next year. An equity research analyst at investment banking Benchmark Company observed that the Black Eagle mine was “picking up steam.”
Residents say Alpha added a gravel road that runs along the mountain for more than a mile earlier this year with at least one new ventilation fan.
Referring to Alpha, â(We) get our coal. We make our money. Who cares, âsaid Rectenwald, whose father was a coal miner. âAnd it’s sad. It’s sad that they have no respect for humanity.
As Alpha pays the residents of Eunice to move, the Rectenwald family are looking to pay for their house in Eunice and start over in a place where they can breathe a little easier – and together.
âGo ahead, go ahead, go ahead,â Rectenwald’s granddaughter Sneed said. ” Do not turn around. Just go. “
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