MADISON —Perhaps those buried in the Jarrell Family Cemetery can rest a little easier now. Late last week (August 22), family members of the deceased filed a lawsuit in Boone County Court aimed at repairing and protecting the cemetery from further desecration.
For years, the family members have been attempting to preserve access to the cemetery and protect the graves of their loved ones as a nearby mountaintop removal (MTR) operation grew ever closer. They worked with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and coal companies to try to obtain the protections the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) affords.
The operation, known as the Twilight Surface Mine complex, once owned by Massey Energy and now owned by Alpha Natural Resources, is thought to be one of the largest surface mines east of the Mississippi River.
As the Twilight operation grew bigger, the community of Lindytown vanished. Today, Lindytown exists only as overgrown flower gardens lining steps and sidewalks to nowhere along a crumbling road.
“This mountaintop removal mine forced people away from their beloved town in the hollers of Boone County,” said Nada Cook-White. “This cemetery is some of the only remaining evidence that Lindytown ever existed. This is a place of vital importance to our cultural heritage. The people buried there tell the history of the town and its families.”
The buried represent hundreds of years of local history, from the woman who donated the land that became Lindytown, World War II veterans, young sisters who died in a house fire in 1978, to graves that are only a few years old.
Despite the years of efforts the families made to protect the cemetery, damage continues. In mid-summer, several family members made official arrangements with Alpha Natural Resources and Independence Coal Company to be allowed access to the cemetery.
“We’ve spent years begging the companies to not destroy this place that is so important to our family history. Our most recent visit made us realize that we have no other recourse but to sue the company for the damages to the cemetery and access road,” said Danny Cook.
“Our visit was astounding, very emotionally impacting,” Cook said. “The 100 foot cemetery boundary for Jarrell Cemetery has been seriously violated.” By law, mining is not to be done within 100 feet of the cemetery’s boundaries. “In my opinion 100 feet isn’t far enough to ensure damage is prevented.”
Maria Gunnoe said, “The blasting from the MTR is shaking headstones loose and rocking them from their foundations, so that they tilt and sink, and in some cases are cracked or broken by fallen trees. The blasting has ripped massive cracks in the land that supports this cemetery. The access roads have been blown up and hauled away and replaced by an extremely unsafe road that switches back about ten times on a clear-cut mountainside.
“Once you get to the graves you are in the midst of blasting areas, likely to detonate at any time. There have been many times that the company has blasted while we visited. This is no way to treat people. These companies can do better than this. I and the others have put our lives in extreme danger just to travel up this road to visit our ancestors. No industry should ever be given this much control of our ancestral lands.”
Debbie Jarrell said, “West Virginians go through life knowing what mountain or hillside we’ll be buried on. With the lax enforcement our West Virginia DEP shows, and the lack of compassion for our communities and history that Alpha and Independence Coal Company show, we have no other recourse but to sue. Not even after death are we able to rest in peace.
“DEP has never written any violations concerning the Jarrell Cemetery. SMCRA law says that coal companies must stay 100 feet away from the graves and in some cases this boundary was pushed in to only 30 feet. The boundary of this cemetery is now a very dangerous highwall on all sides and Alpha and Independence Coal Company are even mining underneath the graves, literally leaving the cemetery an island in the sky and not accessible by any normal means of transportation.”
To visit family cemeteries in the midst of mountaintop removal operations, family members must put in a request with the mine’s safety coordinator. The company has ten days to respond by offering a date on which it will allow the visit. On that day, family members undergo safety training at the mine’s guard shack. In order to meet the qualifications listed on the safety training form, which people must sign, visitors are supposed to have steel-toed boots that meet Mine Safety and Health Administration standards, as well as a hard hat and safety-stripes vest. The company does not supply these items; those without the safety gear can be asked to leave.
Visitors must also show photo ID, which the company photocopies. Visitors are asked to fill in papers with personal information, such as address, phone number and even social security number.
“I believe this information can be used to single out and harass community and family members who care about and visit these graves,” said Leo Cook a 78-year-old family member who had his windshield punched and broken by a man driving a truck that had just left the Twilight mine site. The police, to date, have done nothing to the man who damaged Leo’s car. Yet, Cook noted, a company man paid him $50 for the deductible on his first-ever insurance claim. “This is how I am treated because I continue to care about this cemetery and the people that I helped to bury here.”
Before anyone is allowed to access the cemetery, visitors are asked to give their cameras to the guards to hold, which family members believe is to prevent them from documenting any damages.
Once all the requirements are met, mine employees escort family members to the cemetery and keep them under surveillance while they visit, allowing them at most only two hours.
“For years we’ve endured their inhumane and dangerous processes to visit our loved-ones’ graves. Yet in our most recent visit we have found that Alpha Natural Resources and Independence Coal Company have desecrated Jarrell Cemetery, completely ignoring the laws on the books written to protect cemeteries. As citizens, we’ve jumped through their hoops obeying these laws, but Alpha can’t even obey a 100-foot boundary on a cemetery,” Dustin White said. “This seems to be a common and growing issue in southern West Virginia.”
“After years of asking for laws to be enforced, we are fed up. DEP won’t enforce the laws on Alpha and Independence Coal Company. Alpha Natural Resources and Independence Coal Company won’t do the right and moral thing and let our loved ones rest in peace,” Danny Cook added. “We’ve filed suit against Alpha and Independence Coal Company for the decimation, the simply astounding damages to the resting place of our loved ones.”
Plaintiffs have each agreed that any proceeds that would come from a potential settlement will go into a fund to repair and maintain the Jarrell Cemetery.
Robin Blakeman, a faith-based liaison and organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) said, “People living in communities where extractive industries have desecrated family cemeteries have reached out to OVEC for support and we have networked them with people and resources that can help.
“While OVEC is never involved in personal lawsuits, we are proud to see that these families are taking a firm stand.”
Blakeman noted that people who have had desecration, boundary violation or access problems with family cemeteries are invited to contact OVEC’s office at 304-522-0246.