MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Six Southern West Virginia residents are suing Alpha Natural Resources to stop further damage to a family cemetery they say has become "an island in the sky," barely accessible and literally surrounded by a massive mountaintop-removal mining operation.
They sued Virginia-based Alpha and its Independence Coal Co. subsidiary in Boone County Circuit Court last week after discovering that activity at the Twilight Surface Mine has come within 30 feet of their ancestors' graves in Jarrell Cemetery.
Alpha spokesman Ted Pile said late Wednesday that the lawsuit has no merit. He also said allegations that Alpha has "willfully and maliciously" violated a 100-foot buffer zone, toppled headstones and denied relatives access are false.
Alpha has, instead, "gone above and beyond the letter and spirit of the permit and the law" to protect both the cemetery and the relatives' access to it, he said. Additionally, Pile said, Alpha employees are offended by suggestions that they would deliberately harm the cemetery.
"Our miners are men and women of character who themselves have lost loved ones in the past and understand what these gravesites stand for and mean," he said.
The cemetery sits on a tiny knob of tree-topped land in the middle of what the Jarrell family descendants say is one of the biggest strip mines east of the Mississippi.
They say recent mining activity violates state law and an agreement with Alpha and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to keep mining at least 100 feet away and preserve access to the burial plots. The plaintiffs say that, during a visit this summer, they found serious damage and an access road "so unreasonably graded, steep and dangerous" that only heavy-duty, four-wheel-drive vehicles could use it.
Longtime mountaintop mining activist Maria Gunnoe, one of the plaintiffs, said blasting has shaken headstones loose. Some have tilted and sunk, he said, while others are cracked or were broken by falling trees.
"This is no way to treat people," Gunnoe said. "These companies can do better than this."
Debbie Jarrell accused the DEP of "lax enforcement" and a lack of compassion. She said the agency has not written any violations for the desecration of her family's cemetery, which now is surrounded by a dangerous highwall.
Alpha is even mining underneath the graves, Jarrell alleges, "literally leaving the cemetery an island in the sky and not accessible by any normal means of transportation."