CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Walter Young can't find his great-grandmother's grave. The coal company that had it moved doesn't know where the remains ended up.
"It always looked like a safe, good place nobody would bother,'' the 63-year-old retiree said of the cemetery along Pigeon Creek where his relative, Martha Curry, was buried. "It was up on a hill.''
But that hill was in West Virginia's southern coalfields, and over the years, it changed hands. The land around and under the cemetery passed from one coal company to another as mines grew up around it. Now, no one is sure where Young's great-grandmother was ultimately laid to rest.
The loss is a problem that resonates across West Virginia as small family cemeteries and unmarked graves get in the way of mining, timbering and development interests. Advocates are asking state lawmakers this year to enact regulations that would require better tracking of the graves and protect families who believed that their loved ones wouldn't be disturbed.
"We just keep hearing about more and more cases of it,'' said Carol Warren, a project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Young hadn't visited his great-grandmother's grave regularly since the 1970s, but wanted to check up on it when he realized the cemetery, near Delbarton in the southwestern corner of the state, was near a site being built to store coal waste. When he called for permission to cross company property, he was dumbfounded by the response. The company that now operates the site didn't know where the grave had been relocated.
"I wanted to secure in my mind that this cemetery was OK. I found out it wasn't OK. It was gone,'' Young said.
The graves get lost because sometimes, nearby mining makes it difficut for families to gain access to burial grounds. Sometimes, companies don't give proper public notice before removing or disturbing the graves.
One measure being pushed by the coalition would triple the no-disturbance buffer zone around cemeteries from 100 feet to 300 feet. Another would delete seemingly contradictory language in a law intended to protect human remains, grave artifacts and markers. Currently the law says it isn't meant to "interfere'' with normal activities by landowners, whether they be farmers, developers or coal operators.
The current law is vague and allows individuals to waive any responsibility, said House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, a co-sponsor on two measures.
"The more vague a law is, the less likely it is to be enforced,'' said Perdue, D-Wayne. "I really believe that we have to make sure that hallowed ground is not hollowed ground or harrowed ground.''
A third proposal would require coal companies to explain ahead of time how proposed surface mines would affect nearby cemeteries. And a fourth would allow West Virginia University's extension service to use Global Positioning System to map and plot small cemeteries near mountaintop removal mines.