4:58pm

Thu August 11, 2011
'Radio Diaries'

The Last Man On The Mountain

James "Jimmy" Weekley has lived in Pigeonroost Hollow in West Virginia for 70 years. He grew up surrounded by family and friends, part of a tight-knit community in the state's southern mountain valley. Like his grandfather, father, uncles and sons, Weekley worked as a coal miner. And like most West Virginians, Weekley saw coal as the economic lifeblood of his community.

But in the 1990s, Arch Coal moved into Weekley's area and began work on the Spruce No. 1 mine. Spruce No. 1 was one of the largest mountaintop removal mining sites ever proposed, spanning more than 3,000 acres. It also happened to be right in Weekley's backyard.

Weekley and his wife, Sibby, found themselves surrounded by mining activity: dust, noise and blasting from the nearby site.

"The wife and I couldn't sit on the porch for the dust," he says. "And the noise — constant blasting, tearing my home to hell, seven days a week, 24 hours a day."

One by one, their neighbors in Pigeonroost and the nearby community of Blair moved away. He tried to appeal to them to stay — "We can beat this thing!" — but they took coal company buyouts and moved on.

Through it all, Jimmy and Sibby Weekley stayed in their home — and along the way, they became unlikely anti-mining activists.

In 1998, the Weekleys and their attorney Joe Lovett, along with other plaintiffs, sued to stop work on Spruce No. 1.

"Jimmy was the only thing standing between Arch Coal and probably some of the best reserves in this state," Lovett remembers. "There's no question they could have sold that land for a lot of money, but he and Sibby stood up to a mining company in a way that no one really had before and said, 'We're not leaving here and you can't make us.' "

Economy Vs. Environment

In a landmark decision, they won a restraining order that temporarily halted mining on the permit. Since then, the Spruce No. 1 permit has been challenged repeatedly in court, and the site has become one of the most hotly contested mountaintop removal mines in the country. Industry advocates say that mining on Spruce No. 1 means jobs and economic development for a poverty-stricken region. Weekley says he knows that some residents blame him for area layoffs.

Environmentalists say the project poses a risk to the health of the nearby community and its water. In January, in an unprecedented decision, the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the Spruce No. 1 permit and blocked most mining at the site.

But as the debate over Spruce No. 1 unfolds, the communities around the mine dissolve. Blair shrank from hundreds of homes to a mere handful. And Pigeonroost dwindled until the Weekleys were the only ones who remained.

Four years ago, after almost 48 years together, Sibby died. And now, Weekley holds out alone in Pigeonroost Hollow. Lonely, he thinks about leaving.

'A Big Decision'

His granddaughter wants him to keep sticking it out. "Poppy, I know you get lonely but I think I would literally cry if you sold. This is where we all grew up. This is where we played. We love it here," Alicia Weekley tells him.

"I got a big decision to make," he says. "Will James Weekley finally give in to the coal company?"

There are places he'd like to travel to, he says — to see the aspen trees in Maine; the Philippines, Paris, London. "This is what I'm likin' to do. But I'd still have Pigeonroost Hollow on my mind no matter where I went."

It's hard, he says, to get out of a place where you've lived all your life. "The old saying is, 'You always want to come back where your roots are.' And I'm just not ready."

Produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.