With Mountaintop Removal, Even the Dead Cant Rest in Peace
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by Larry Gibson, Dianne Bady, and Regina Hendrix |
Nothing's sacred anymore, even the old family cemetary!
Although it is not mentioned in the news often, residents of southern West Virginia and the coal industry have long been at odds over access to private cemeteries. The conflict came to a head recently at Stover Cemetery on Kayford Mountain. The cemetery is located in the midst of a vast mountaintop removal mine at the intersection of Boone, Kanawha and Raleigh counties.
Before photo of Kayford Mountain MTR mine site with Stover Cemetary on the forested promontary to the far right. (photo by Vivian Stockman, OHVEC)
Family members of those buried there believe that part of the cemetery was destroyed by mining activity this July, after state agencies failed to accurately record all the cemetery’s graves. The agencies said there were only 11 graves on the site; the families believe the cemetery was the final resting place for at least 21 people.
Larry Gibson’s great, great grandparents are (were?) buried in Stover. He had been trying for over a year and a half to get officials from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to go to the cemetery with him. He wanted to make certain they were aware that, before mining began, a logging company had pushed over gravestones. He was trying to make sure that the coal company did not destroy any more of the cemetery.
Larry Gibson consoled by former Congressman Ken Heckler (photo by Sierra Club member Mark Schmerling)
SHPO personnel told Larry he could not visit the cemetery without Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approval. When Larry called the DEP they referred him back to SHPO, and so the family members were caught for a year and a half in a frustrating bureaucratic loop.
This July, after he discovered that the coal company was operating in what he and others believe to be part of the cemetery, DEP personnel told Larry that SHPO people had been to the cemetery and showed the DEP where eleven graves were. Family members want to know why they were not allowed to participate in the documentation of the graves. They feel confident they could have pointed out the graves of at least ten other people.
Family members also want to know why the coal company has been illegally denying them access. Lois Armstrong and her relatives had been trying to get onto the cemetery to clean it up, but the company kept them out of their own family graveyard. When family members called the state police, the police were also turned away by mine employees.
After bulldozing the forest, blasting charges are set (white area in middle of photo). The blasting blew away about one half of the Stover Cemetary (photo by Vivian Stockman, OHVEC)
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. We hear of other cemeteries on mountaintop removal sites being bulldozed. Prior access is denied to family members by the mining companies. Then there’s no way for relatives to prove the existence of burial sites and so these atrocities go unchallenged and unpunished. This is a problem especially in areas such as Kayford, Blair or Dehue—places where whole communities have been wiped out by mountaintop removal.
Recently we met with SHPO personnel to discuss the Stover Cemetery desecration. We were told that SHPO doesn’t have the legal authority to prevent coal companies from mining in cemeteries, unless those cemeteries are designated as National Historic Sites. We believe that legislative action is needed to prevent such atrocities from happening again. During early September family members watched from afar as the coal company scooped up the coal from beneath the disputed area of the cemetery. In her statement concerning her relatives buried in the Stover Cemetery, Lois Armstrong says, “This is just a small area in [the coal company’s] devastated moonscape area. Their greed and disrespect are beyond human understanding.”
Note: For Further information, check out the following sites:
Stover Photos: http://www.ohvec.org/galleries/mountaintop_removal/012/index.html
WV State Cemetery Codes: http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/cemcodes.html
WV State Code re Cemetery Access: http://www.legis.state.wv.us/WVCODE/37/WVC%2037%20%20-%2013%20A-%20%20%201%20%20.htm