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November 6, 2010

Antrim Caskey’s “Dragline”: Moving to Appalachia

Maria Gunnoe, town of Bob White, West Virginia: “With mountaintop removal, the species we are losing is the human species — just because we’re hillbillies. Hillbillies are the last people you can make fun of — it’s acceptable. We do have educations. We do have lives. There’s going to be an uprising here; the coal industry has turned us into activists. I try not to hate, I really do. There’s a part of me that feels sorry for them. There’s a part of me that would be standing with my foot on their throat and I wouldn’t feel sorry for them.” (as quoted in Grist)

This is the second post of photographer Antrim Caskey’s Mountaintop Mining Watch series from West Virginia on mountaintop removal by coal companies.

Antrim was working at the New York Independent Media Center in 2005 when Maria Gunnoe walked through the office door and began telling her story. Ms. Gunnoe was in town to protest at Massey Energy’s shareholders’ meeting, as she lived right next to mining operations on the Big Branch Creek — “they’re mining coal in my bedroom” — and her home was flooded seven times and her water contaminated when the mountains were blasted apart for precious coal. She almost drowned with her children in the dark water, which almost washed away her house, and her well water is too toxic not just for drinking but even washing. She was, as Antrim remembers, “focused on me like a laser beam, and I went down there for the first time three days later. It was Memorial Day Weekend.”

May 31, 2005: Mountaintop removal coal mining in southern West Virginia.

Volunteer pilots from South Wings flew her over the region for the first time, and it was immediately apparent what mountaintop removal does to the earth. It is “strip mining on steroids,” said Judy Bonds, the co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch. What happens is that the coal that is easy or less invasive to get at — either by traditional digging or even earlier surface mining — has largely been exhausted, so the mountains are now taken apart entirely.

Antrim relates, “Mountaintop removal annihilates communities, mountain hamlets and hollows, because they take off the mountain and put it in the valley below. Flooding, getting covered up in poisonous dust, blasting which damages foundations of buildings: everything becomes a massive industrial site. It turns headwater streams into pollution spillways. The 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) turned oversight over to the states and not the federal government, which essentially means that there is no oversight.”

“After that first trip, I started spending half my time in West Virginia, falling in love with the mountains, savoring the essence. The issue was heating up. I made more than twenty trips in three years, but my head was out of New York. It was all I wanted to do. So in 2008, I moved to Rock Creek, pop. 400, in southwest West Virginia, to a dilapidated compound of houses that I helped renovate, called the Ford Addition.”

The first Halloween at the Ford Addition.

Antrim continues, “It’s a coal-industrial complex. We live where they mine, in West Virginia. They burn it in Ohio power plants. They dump it in Tennessee, where they store the coal ash waste from the power plants.”

–Alan Chin


Please see the other posts in the Mountaintop Mining Watch series.

About the Photographer

Antrim Caskey

Antrim Caskey is a photojournalist based in the Coal River Valley, W.Va., and specializes in reporting on the human and environmental costs of mountaintop-removal coal mining. She has been arrested several times in the course of her reporting and been sued by Massey Energy. She founded Appalachia Watch, an advocacy journalism project, and self-published "Dragline," an award-winning photo exposé on mountaintop removal. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Smithsonian magazine, the New York Times, and was featured in the documentary The Last Mountain. See more of Antrim's work for BagNews here.

  • Wayne Dickson

    These and similar images really are heartbreaking … assuming one has a heart to break. No one in Big Energy seems to be at risk, because no one seems to have a heart.

    I wonder how much money Big Coal laundered through the Rove and U.S. Chamber operations to help purchase a regulation-hating Congress? (Remember Rand Paul’s saying he thought the Kentucky hills looked much better after having been flattened by mountaintop removal?)

  • Glenn May

    Isn’t democracy amazing? The environment is raped to benefit a handful of people, and yet somehow the “leaders” who let it happen keep getting “elected.” So much more effective than any coercive form of government. Let the people think they are running the show, and they will not only let you get away with anything, but also cheer you on while you are doing it to them. USA!

  • serr8d

    I agree with you that this is a heartbreak. But I also blame you, and your left-based ideology that’s driving the Democrat party, for the necessity of digging coal out of the ground to keep our electrical grid up and running.

    France gets 90% of her electrical grid power from nuclear reactors. We had that choice too, in the ’70’s, and the nascent dirty socialists running today’s Democrat Party (then they were just dirty hippies) cried out in fear of ecological disaster!. So, we didn’t.

    If your little prezzident-man wants to make a difference, as did Eisenhower with his interstate system and FDR with the TVA, then let him push for 100 new nuclear reactors post-haste. Shovel ready jobs for every state!

    But he’d have to do some hippy-punching, an effort in which I would gladly assist.

    • H&H

      ‘This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head.’
      ‘Thus has he-and many more of the same breed that I know the drossy age dotes on-only get the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter; a kind of yeasty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.’

    • Stan B.

      The ’70s, the ’70s, the ’70s… What happened in the ’70s?

      Oh, yeah- THREE MILE ISLAND!!! That’s what stopped nuclear power dead in the seventies you under sharpened, bluntly serrated twit.

      So keep on blaming nonexistent hippies, commies, whatever… It’s god almighty President Reagan’s deregulation that’s caused all this disaster, and if we had invested real monies in wind solar and tidal (rather than pure lip service) since the seventies- we’d have something to show for it now. Why don’t you go to wonderfully Conservative Nevada and sing the praises of the atom’s wonder- I’m sure they’ll tell you where to put it…

      PS- Wow! A Conservative looking to France for answers! Don’t choke on your freedom Fries!

    • black dog barking

      Chernobyl, 26 April 1986.

      The pebble bed reactor fails by shutting down as opposed to melting down. ‘Course we’d all know that if we didn’t have to stop at every breath and analyze who is or isn’t a witch or wonder why it costs $200 million a day for the President to go to India.

    • Paul_D

      “Hippie punching”? You? Ha!

  • Wayne Dickson

    Mike, have you guys kept any sort of records to map which topics attract the most (and most vituperative) trolling?

    • serr8d

      Wayne, if you want pure unadulterated lockstep non-confrontational echo room effect, then listen only to the voices in your head. Written by Steven Den Beste…

      In order for “alternate energy” to become feasible, it has to satisfy all of the following criteria:

      1. It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
      2. It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
      3. It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
      4. It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
      5. The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).

      If it fails to satisfy any of those, then it can’t scale enough to make any difference. Solar power fails #3, and currently it also fails #5. (It also partially fails #2, but there are ways to work around that.)

      The only sources of energy available to us now that satisfy all five are petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

      My rule of thumb is that I’m not interested in any “alternate energy” until someone shows me how to scale it to produce at least 1% of our current energy usage. America right now uses about 3.6 terawatts average, so 1% of that is about 36 gigawatts average.

      Show me a plan to produce 36 gigawatts (average, not peak) using solar power, at a price no more than 30% greater than coal generation of comparable capacity, which can be implemented at that scale in 10-15 years. Then I’ll pay attention.

      Since solar power installations can only produce power for about 10 hours per day on average, that means that peak power production would need to be in the range of about 85 gigawatts to reach that 1%.

      Without that, it’s just religion, like all the people fascinated with wind and with biomass. And even if it did reach 1%, that still leaves the other 99% of our energy production to petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

      And with that, I’ll leave you your imaginary echo chamber.

  • Ariel Carter

    There is an alternative, also started in the 70s, or actually at the dawn of time, and the good news is this alt has NO toxic waste to dispose of! It’s called THE SUN. The only reason Solar Energy is not powering our planet is because we haven’t had to good sense to make it do so. Hopefully Antrim’s photographs will help us understand that going to the ends of the earth and destroying our homes and our peoples lives is not the answer. Here’s to the sheer force of will of Maria Gunoe, and talent and dedication of Antrim Caskey to tell her story.
    And I eat my Frites with ketchup.

  • Rafael

    Of course, seer8d fails to mention is what you do with all the nuclear waste, you know that one that glows in the dark and stays radioactive for 10,000 years (give or take a millennium)

  • Dave

    I would like some time committed to the atrocities of wind farms. Thousands of beautiful eagles killed every year and since they are on huge private property tracts out West, they are not under the authority of the endangered species act! They don’t even have to report endangered species “take”. Ask the experts at the US-FWS, these guys are monsters that need to be reigned in!

  • momly

    I have nothing to say about the pictures or comments because they are very difficult to read!! Red and white on a dark background vibrate and give me eyestrain!

  • Canute

    Let’s get back to the images. Look at that woman’s face. It just radiates her weariness and heartbreak. And yet she is thoughtful, not angry. Then look at the posture of the child, out of focus behind her. Again, weariness and despair. These are people who are enduring, not living. Whatever we do, we have to end what is happening to these people.

    First thing – stop wasting electricity. Some researchers figured out that if the rest of the U.S. adopted California’s energy efficiency standards it would cut our national electrical use by 1/3. Californians aren’t living in caves and eating raw meat – they even have air conditioning. We could do this. Add some Euro-style commercial/industrial efficiency and we could probably push 50% savings. No risk, no waste, more money in our pockets.

    Here in Vermont we have an energy efficiency utility. It “generates” electricity by helping people save it. The savings cost an average of 2.9 cents a kilowatt-hour, about a quarter of the retail price of electricity. Not only clean, but the cheapest thing going.

  • Susan Kollins

    There is a Pre-Raphelite beauty to the woman and the blurred background has the slight effect of water. The child, sitting on Bambi, does not have a facial expression that the Disney movie would try to evoke. Rather her countenance mirrors the adult.

  • Leanne

    Such moving pictures. Spurs me to comment that we all need to act by Friday, Nov 19th, to get coal ash regulated
    responsibly! On Friday, the EPA comment window closes and will use the comments submitted to decide between Subtitle C and Subtitle D.

    Subtitle C is for CLEAN and safe communities and regulations that save money, lives, and environmental integrity. Subtitle D is DIRTY and status quo, basically leaving coal ash less regulated than household trash. Go to to comment to the EPA and make your voice heard. The site is really easy to use and won’t take more than a minute of your time. Subtitle C is clearly the way to go- let’s make it happen!

  • DrBobSlusarenko

    Very moving picture of Maris Gunnoe, great location. Im working on the houses pictured in the series. It has been a real pleasure living on Ford addition road.Tnanks again for a great collaboration

  • Julia Grey

    “black dog barking” still quotes the bogus 200 million a day India trip fabulation as if it’s a fact we have to “wonder about.”

    What’s that saying about a lie going all the way around the world before the truth can get its boots on?

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