"Let's begin the process of trying to document where all these small cemeteries are located,'' said Delegate Robert Beach, D-Monongalia.
The legislation was prompted by a fly over Beach took last year of mountaintop removal mines. The mining method involves blowing up ridgelines to expose several coal seams.
A lot of people living near the expanding surface mines are afraid family cemeteries are "just going to be covered over and become nonexistent,'' Beach said.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, says coal operators follow the law and try to be sensitive when cemeteries get in the way, treating families with dignity. However, he can't say how often such disputes arise.
International Coal Group's Patriot Mining Co. is currently in court in northern West Virginia, seeking approval to relocate a cemetery where the last burial occurred more then 70 years ago. Patriot received permission last year to move a nearby cemetery.
Patriot estimates there is 7,000 tons of coal beneath the 22 graves it now wants to move. Because of buffer zone and blasting laws, Patriot technical services manager Tom Jones said 80,000 to 100,000 tons of coal would be lost if the cemetery isn't relocated. At today's spot market prices, the coal would be worth at least $5.2 million.
Patriot says it will treat the remains with respect and move them to a public cemetery with perpetual care where descendants can visit. Eight of 12 descendants have agreed, but one is challenging the move.
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition organizer Robin Blakeman doesn't know how much coal is beneath her family cemetery in Brier Branch Hollow. The Harless-Bradshaw Cemetery had been used by her family and the nearby community since the mid-1800s, and contains the grave of a Civil War cavalry corporal. The last burial was in 2001 and the area is now overgrown by trees.
In the past five years, Blakeman has watched Ravencrest Contracting slowly encircle the wooded knoll where the cemetery is located. The former farm passed out of her family's hands more then 50 years ago. The family now relies on state law and an agreement with the coal operator to reach the cemetery on a gravel roadway used to haul coal out of the mine.
On a recent Saturday, Blakeman planted Gladiolus bulbs near several of the stones. As she worked, the sound of heavy mining machinery and trucks drifted across the narrow valley.
"Sometimes in the midst of all this destruction, sometimes the only thing you can do is try and add a little bit of beauty,'' Blakeman said. "I'm also thinking these flowers will at least alert somebody to the fact that somebody cares.''