Alpha sued over 'island in the sky' cemetery
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."
The DEP did not comment on the matter Thursday.
The lawsuit accuses Alpha of grave desecration, violations of the state Surface Coal Mine Reclamation Act, negligence and infliction of emotional distress. It seeks unspecified compensatory damages for cemetery repairs and punitive damages to deter future bad conduct, as well as a court order that prohibits Alpha from denying reasonable access.
Family members said they have tried for years to preserve access to the cemetery, but that the expansion of the Twilight Surface Mine crept closer, eventually swallowing what once was the community of Lindytown.
Nada Cook-White said the operation forced people away from their homes and that the Jarrell Family Cemetery is the last evidence that Lindytown ever existed.
"This is a place of vital importance to our cultural heritage," she said. "The people buried there tell the history of the town and its families."
To reach the cemetery, relatives must request access from the mine's safety coordinator, who has 10 days to respond with a date. Visitors must show an ID to get in, including providing Social Security numbers.
Pile said Alpha is trying to ensure their safety, and the visitors don't always have to wait 10 days.
"What some of the family members and visitors have done is intentionally violate these state and federal safety guidelines," he said. "On one occasion, they unlawfully entered the property without a safety briefing and without an escort -- unnecessarily putting themselves and others in danger."
Pile said Alpha hired outside contractors to survey the cemetery and document its condition before mining. Alpha also placed seismographs to ensure that all blasting complies with state and federal law, he said.
"Our records and documentation show that we have not affected the integrity of the gravesites," Pile said.
He said Alpha also re-graded and re-stoned the road for the families, in anticipation of Memorial Day visits, and cleaned the headstones after a forest fire.