An “island in the sky” may sound like a nice, tropical vacation spot, but in West Virginia it carries a whole different meaning. The Jarrell family cemetery used to sit atop one of Appalachia’s many pristine and beautiful mountains. The cemetery hasn’t moved, but the mountains have. Situated in the center of a surface mining site, the hillside around the cemetery has been blasted away, leaving the Jarrell’s with quite literally an “island in the sky” plot of land.
For years, the Jarrell family has had to fight tooth-and-nail against the coal companies whose mountaintop removal mining operations kept creeping closer to their cemetery. If it wasn’t insulting enough to have to fight to preserve the graves of their ancestors, the family cannot even visit the cemetery without putting in a request with the mine’s safety coordinator. But the Jarrell family has had enough.
The Jarrells recently filed suit against Alpha Natural Resources for coming within 30 feet of their ancestors’ graves, which the family claims violates state law and a pre-arranged agreement with Alpha for a 100-foot buffer zone boundary. One of the family members even claimed that Alpha went so far as to mine underneath the graves. The family is suing for damages associated with negligence, grave desecration, and infliction of emotional distress by Alpha’s mining operations.
If it comes as a surprise that a large coal-producing company like Alpha is desperately trying to take control of the Jarrell’s plot of land, consider the current situation that many coal companies are facing. Massey Energy, once the fourth largest producer of coal in the country, was bought by Alpha in 2011 after a horrendous mine disaster. Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy in July of this year and was accompanied with a battled by the United Mine Workers of America over employee pensions. With the struggles facing the coal companies, it is no surprise that entities like Alpha will morally bankrupt themselves for a quick dollar. Exploitation of people for profit is not unfamiliar territory.
When individuals fight big coal, they are waging a David and Goliath battle. The Jarrell family may be at a disadvantage, but they’re fighting for both themselves and to preserve the honor of their ancestors. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the term coined for their plot of land, island in the sky, is also a John Wayne movie. John Wayne was faced with keeping his men alive after they were forced to land their supply planes in icy conditions and await rescue. With the odds stacked against them, they are able to survive. The Jarrells are faced with comparable conditions. Fighting a coal company that runs one of the largest surface mining operations is almost like being stranded out in sub-zero temperatures. Most people wouldn’t even try. But most people don’t have everything to fight for.