By Kris Maher
In 2012, I spent a few days in Nitro, West Virgina, for the Wall Street Journal, reporting on a settlement the town had won from Monsanto for its pollution of local groundwater while making Agent Orange for the U.S. military. I expected rage against the corporation. Instead what I found was a longing for the days of smoke and particulates. That stinky air? To people in Nitro, that was the smell of jobs.The tension between small town employment and its deadly costs, and consequent tragedy, are central to Kris Maher’s important and gripping new book, Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia, the saga of mining communities in southern West Virginia in the early years of this century fighting coal company Massey Energy and its titanic boss Don Blankenship, for clean water.
For Maher, a Pittsburgh-based former colleague of mine at the Wall Street Journal, the story he tells is “a distillation of what’s happened in other parts of the country with small towns,” he told me in an interview. “But it’s more evident here because you only had the coal industry and you never had some other industries come in and replace it. There’s more of a focus on one specific industry, and its impact.”
In the 1980s, a coal mining company called Rawl Sales&Processing, controlled by Massey, in Mingo County, started injecting waste from active mines into abandoned mines which then leaked into the water supply of local towns.