Companies strip town of homes in order to strip for more coal

People are selling their properties and leaving what used to be a thriving mining area.

STONEGA — Dorothy Taulbee lives in a double house that’s more than 100 years old. She was born in another double house 68 years ago.

They’re called double houses because they were meant to house two miners’ families. Each family got an upstairs room and a downstairs room. Other rooms have been added to Taulbee’s house over the years, and she has the place to herself.

She’ll probably be moving out before long.

This town created for miners is being sacrificed to a mine.

“There is obviously coal in the area that could be mined sometime in the future,” said Phillip Mullins, a consultant who has been helping Pigeon Creek Processing, a mining company that operates a mine at the edge of Stonega, buy out Taulbee and other residents.

The company Mullins works for, Appalachian Technical Services, has closed deals on three or four properties, he said, with another three or four deals pending.

Pigeon Creek doesn’t have immediate plans to expand, but within three months the company probably will have bought up this end of the once-thriving town, Mullins said.

Stonega, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2004, was created in 1890 by a Pennsylvania corporation called the Virginia Coal and Iron Co. Wedged between Bluff Spur Mountain and Ninemile Spur Mountain, the town was originally called Pioneer. The coal company changed its name to a combination of “stone” and “gap” with the “p” left off.

The town wound along the banks of Callahans Creek in sections — Red Row, Quality Row, Canal Row, Hunktown, Midway, Upper End, Lower End.

During its heyday in the first two decades of the 20th century, Stonega had more than 2,400 residents — white and black, natives and immigrants from Hungary, Poland and Italy. Stonega boasted a brass band, baseball teams and a gospel quartet. The town had a hotel, a commissary, a theater, a hospital, schools, three churches for whites and one for blacks.

But a listing on the National Register is no hedge against demolition, and whole sections are already gone.

Taulbee’s home is a few strides from the old black church. A sign out front proclaims it the Full Gospel House of Solution.

Like Taulbee’s house, the church sits just a couple of feet off the state road and about 500 feet from the entrance to a strip mine that covers what used to be Stonega’s Upper Row.

Gary Selvage shot this video of the Glamorgan mine, at the edge of the community of Stephens, earlier this year. Selvage was standing in his side yard, a few steps from his deck. Selvage’s house, a little more than three football fields away, is not the closest to the mine. Mining laws allow blasting within 300 feet of homes. Last fall, fly rock from this mine crashed through the roof of one of Selvage’s neighbors.

Taulbee has had her problems with the companies that run that mining operation. She’s complained to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy’s Division of Mined Land Reclamation about A&G Coal, Pigeon Creek Processing and Meg-Lynn Land Co. She’s complained about blasting, dust and what she sees as the companies’ general disregard for residents’ quality of life.

Mullins said it’s concern about the residents’ quality of life that is moving his client to buy residents out.

“It’s just basically to take care of these issues,” Mullins said. “We think it’s the right thing to do.”

Taulbee went to a hearing at the DMME’s Big Stone Gap office in June with evidence: a jar of dust from her front porch; bags of the dust that covers her home inside and out; and a bag of short-circuited circuit breakers, ruined as dust kept getting into her electrical box, she told Gavin Bledsoe, the department’s hearings coordinator.

She told Bledsoe about explosions shaking her house and overloaded trucks speeding within arm’s reach of her porch.

This was an appeals hearing. The DMME had already told her the companies were doing everything their mining permits require. Bledsoe came to the same conclusion, mostly. Her talk of blasts at 2 a.m. caught his attention, so he left that part of the complaint open, asking her to call with documentation.

But Taulbee is planning to move out. The mines have been creeping closer to her house for years. Many of her neighbors have already sold out. A company representative came to her on Memorial Day. The company wants to swap Taulbee a new place for her old one.

They showed her a nice double-wide in a trailer park.

“They’re all-jammed-up-together places,” she said. “I said, ‘Lord a mercy, I ain’t going to live like that.’ ”

Two other options were in another old mining camp.

“I don’t want nowhere around here,” Taulbee said. “They’re stripping everywhere.”

They may have finally reached an agreement about a place near Coeburn.

“My people lives down at Coeburn,” Taulbee said. “And it’s up against the national forest where they can’t strip.”

By Tim Thornton

SOURCE: THE ROANOKE TIMES

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