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November 18, 2010

Antrim Caskey's "Dragline": Mediation Fails

Tom Dewey Jervis, Vietnam veteran and plaintiff against Massey Energy, at the mass litigation meeting in the Charleston, West Virginia Civic Center this Monday, November 15, 2010. He says that he is determined, “in to the end.” When Antrim asked him what he thought of Massey CEO Don Blankenship, Mr. Jervis replied without hatred or rancor, “I think he’s a big old spoiled brat.”

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

Following up on the last post, more than six hundred residents of Mingo County appeared in person as litigants, as they were required to, in order to continue their long-running lawsuit against Massey Energy. The occasion was for a mediation attempt to settle the case of their water poisoned by toxic coal slurry. All the judges, insurance representatives, and lawyers for both sides were there. However, as feared, three days later negotiations ended in complete failure and it will finally go to a jury trial.

At right, Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court Janice Davis spoke: “Our court has spent a lot of money and time to help resolve this case…” and in center, left is Judge Derek Swope and right is Judge Alan Moats, of the mass litigation panel. Judge Moats said, “This is truly an unprecedented event that we’ve come together to resolve and spare potential years of litigation.”

So the full weight of the state’s structures have been brought to bear to try to redress the damage caused by environmentally destructive coal mining: health problems including cancers and liver diseases and water impossible to safely drink or bathe in. It is in everybody’s best interest to move forward, but that proved as elusive as ever. Arguably, it would have cost Massey Energy less to pay claims and reform their operations rather than fight this prolonged legal battle. No way!

From Antrim’s notes: “Mrs. Bigman from Rawl. She’s on medicine for various illnesses which make her throat painfully dry. She was upset because they would not let her take her bottle water into the theatre.” There was heavy security, all too typical of American public events in our time, underscoring fear of any kind of incident.

But for all that, it was a rare opportunity for neighbors to see each other all gathered together under the same roof, united by common struggle. Six hundred people from a rural West Virginia county drove a hundred miles to the state capital, some from further away as they’ve had to move in the years since the case started in 2004.

It has made some of them more aware of their health; at right in glasses is Donetta Blankenship (wearing the “A friend is a gift from God” T-shirt in the last post) and Antrim was happy to see the improvement in her condition.

But this big chance to hammer out a legal remedy collapsed. Massey Energy continues to deny any wrong-doing, and the trial will begin next year in August 2011. Doubtless there will be appeals and further delays, no matter the outcome. As Ernie Brown (also photographed in the last post) said, for him it is “proof that we have no justice system in West Virginia.”

–Alan Chin


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

Post updated 18:40 EST November 18, 2010 to correctly identify Donetta Blankenship.

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.

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