Madison Cook’s miniature hands were covered in the sooty remains of a lump of bituminous coal. She had been collecting treasures all down the road—a yellow spotted salamander, a turkey feather, a magenta leaf—and this was her latest find. But unlike the other members of her Sunday afternoon collection, the coal wasn’t found in the biodiverse Appalachian forest that blanketed part of Cook Mountain. Rather, chunks and pebbles of the infamous fuel littered the top of the high wall that marked the edge of an advancing mountaintop removal site.
Several hundred feet behind us sat the Cook family cemeteries, where 29 of Madison’s ancestors lay at rest. In late June, her uncle, Danny Cook, discovered the access roads—required to be maintained by West Virginia law—blocked by five steep, human-made berms of mud and tree trunks. On the dirt road directly alongside the cemeteries, Horizon Resources LLC, the company mining Cook Mountain, drilled holes to ascertain how deep down the coal seams lay. Should Horizon get its way, explosives will blast away the bones of the dead, exposing a thin strip of coal that will be mined and loaded onto a train, to be burned quickly and cheaply in a factory or plant. Because the Cooks do not own mineral rights to their ancestral mountain, and are unsure of their surface rights, Horizon Resources is free to decimate it.