The Last Man On The Mountain

Aug 11, 2011
Originally published on August 11, 2011 10:56 pm

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.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

James Weekley has lived in Pigeon Roost Hollow, West Virginia, for 70 years. He worked as a coal miner, as did his grandfather, father, uncles and sons. And, like most West Virginians, James Weekley saw coal as the economic lifeblood of his community.

NORRIS: Then in the 1990s, a company called Arch Coal started work on one of the largest mountaintop removal mines ever proposed, the Spruce Number 1 Mine. The site was virtually in Weekley's backyard. Almost overnight, he was transformed into an anti-mining activist. He sued to stop the mine and won a temporary restraining order.

BLOCK: Still, some mining at the site has continued. And over the years, James Weekley has watched his family and neighbors take buyouts from the coal company and leave the area. Weekley has refused to sell.

Producers Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries have this story of the last man on the mountain.


JAMES WEEKLEY: My name is James Weekley. I'm standing on the porch in front of my house here in Pigeon Roost Hollow in West Virginia. You can probably hear the stirring in the background. I'm 71 and I've lived in this hollow - I've lived here all my life. When I was a kid, there was 27 houses in this hollow. My mom and dad lived up the road right here about 100 feet from here. My first cousin lived right over here. Back down this way, Dan Curry(ph) and Cecilia Burgess(ph). But right now no one else listen this hollow except me, James Weekley. Me and the coal company.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: For the last three and a half year, the top of Blair Mountain has been dug and blasted away. The growth of mountaintop removal has pushed mines close to communities. The coal industry says it is carving away mountaintops and filling valleys with care and precision. But many here worry that there will be a price for permanently altering the landscape.

JOE LOVETT: My name is Joe Lovett. Jimmy and his wife, Sibby, walked into my office in late 1997. I had just become a lawyer. They were my very first clients, actually. And Jimmy had an article about mountaintop removal with him. And it was a huge two-page picture and he pointed to it. You know, there was just destruction all over the picture. And he said, I live right there.

WEEKLEY: The wife and I couldn't sit on the porch for the dust. And the noise, constant blasting, tearing my home all to hell, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Well, next thing I know, my friends were starting to sell. Coal company come in and offered them 70 and 80 and $90,000. They thought that was big bucks.

I started going out and talking to these people. And I said, hey, please don't sell. This is your roots, you've been here all your life. Hold in there, we can beat this thing. But they all sold out to the coal company.

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


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: James Weekley stands in the way of a planned 3100-acre expansion by Arch Coal of St. Louis, Missouri. What Weekley sees as his land, his heritage for his grandchildren, the coal industry sees as buried treasure. Arch Coal can move mountains but it can't move James Weekley.

BILL RAINEY: My name is Bill Rainey and I'm president of West Virginia Coal Association. The good Lord for these resources in these mountains and, of course, it's a huge, huge part of the state's economy - coal in West Virginia. Most everyone have relatives that have something to do with the mining industry. They want to sustain their family. They want a good job and they're proud of what they do. So, Mr. Weekley became the center of a lot of attention.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Look at me. I'm your neighbor that you put out of work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We want jobs today. We don't want our families leaving, going to the Carolinas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here in his coal field home, James Weekley got an unfriendly screaming, egg-throwing reception.

WEEKLEY: I'm not out here to take their jobs. I'm out here trying to make a long time future for my grandchildren and their grandchildren, and everyone else.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Do you understand why they are frustrated...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...with you.

WEEKLEY: No, not particularly. I do not know.

RAINEY: Mr. Weekley, for whatever reason did not sell. Twelve years on, he remains where he was, and others have moved on.


WEEKLEY: I'm in my car, a Lincoln Continental town car. We're on Route 17 going north, and I'm going to go pick up some cigarettes. I smoke. This is the town of Blair, West Virginia. There was about 450 homes in here 10, 15 years ago. But look at it now, 30 homes. Thirty homes at the most.

Virginia Grimes lives right here. That's one of the people who won't talk to me. Their boys worked over there and got laid off. They had to go somewhere else to get a job. They put the blame on Sibby and I, and they ain't spoke to me since.

Yes, ma'am. Give me five Winston Lights. Thank you muchly. Hollow town, that man right there worked on with the mountaintop removal.


WEEKLEY: This is Timmy Dotson(ph). Tell them your name.

DOTSON: My name is Timmy Dotson. I'm from Blair, West Virginia. The last most (unintelligible) on the Earth. Now it ain't even on the map no more. You go buy a new map today, that town ain't on there.

WEEKLEY: How come?

DOTSON: Mountaintop removal and coal mine. Coal itself.

WEEKLEY: Did it create jobs?

DOTSON: That's funny. I helped build that coal mine up there. I helped tear the old one down, build the new one and still can't get a job.

WEEKLEY: But, Timmy, do you think that I'm doing the right thing by fighting mountaintop removal? I want the truth. Are you against me?

DOTSON: Well, for it and against it. You know what I mean? It don't matter, Jimmy. You ain't going to stop it.

WEEKLEY: But if we can put a slowdown to it.

DOTSON: It ain't going to happen.

WEEKLEY: Oh, I have.

DOTSON: Yeah, I can honestly say slowed it down a time or two.


DOTSON: But you're not going to stop progress, buddy.

WEEKLEY: Well, wouldn't you rather be...

DOTSON: As long as there's coal there, they're going to get it one way or another.

WEEKLEY: Right, one way.

DOTSON: On top or underground, they have to have it. Okay? You ain't going to stop it.

WEEKLEY: Thank you very much, Timmy.

DOTSON: Yeah, not a problem. Be careful.


WEEKLEY: Whoo, and the blasting area. Trespassers who will be prosecuted. This is the Spruce Number 1 Mine and Pigeon Roost Hollow, right in my backyard. We're looking at where they have chopped the top of the mountain off to get down to the coal. And that's the way they do it - they just keep blasting the top off from it, until this mountain here, all the way around, is just leveled. Every bit of this will be leveled.

My great-great-grandpa was one that owned all this. They come here in 1834 and they settled in Pigeon Roost. He owned this as far as the eye could see. And we called it our mountain. There ain't a place on these mountains that we haven't left our footprints.


WEEKLEY: Hello, baby. Thank you for coming over.

This is my granddaughter Alicia Dawne Weekley.

ALICIA DAWNE WEEKLEY: Favorite granddaughter, right?


WEEKLEY: I love them all. The last count I had was 29.

WEEKLEY: Twenty-nine grandchildren.

WEEKLEY: Grandchildren. And I think three more is coming, but I can find out. So it'd make 32.

WEEKLEY: That's a lot of kids, and it?


WEEKLEY: Your granny build this house, didn't you, Poppy?

WEEKLEY: Yes. We did, baby. Mama put a lot of nails in this house. Sibby was weakly. We was together almost 48 years. I miss her. What do you think about Pa-pa quitting this mountaintop and going on with his life?

WEEKLEY: Pa-pa, you're not selling, right?

WEEKLEY: I don't know.

WEEKLEY: Do you want me to be truthful?


WEEKLEY: 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.

WEEKLEY: Well, you can't - you don't know what Poppy goes through living by myself, no one to talk to day in and day out, looking at the pictures my wife has put up on the wall. I get lonesome. It just takes my heart out of me.

WEEKLEY: So, if Granny was still here, you'd never sell, right?

WEEKLEY: I'd never sell. I'd never sell. Ain't no doubt in my mind.

WEEKLEY: You're just lonely.

WEEKLEY: Yes. I'll be truthful with you, baby - yes.

WEEKLEY: You know, it's hard, Poppy. I want you to be happy, I do. I can't blame you. It's just, I don't think you should let them have your house for anything.

WEEKLEY: Well, I got a big decision to make. Will James Weekley finally give in to the coal company?


WEEKLEY: Yes, dear.

WEEKLEY: It was good talking to you. I love you.

WEEKLEY: I love you too, baby. Bye.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Y'all have a good night and have a safe trip back (unintelligible). Take care.


WEEKLEY: I was born here in Pigeonroost Hollow. I've never been out west - California, Montana - I've never been to them places. But I've always wanted to go on up and see the aspen trees up in Maine. I always did want to go up there and look at them. And then take a plane and go across the waters to the Philippine islands - and visit them. I'd like to go to Paris, London, just travel the rest of my life, enjoying myself. This is what I'm likened to do. But I still have Pigeonroost Hollow on my mind, no matter where I went. It's hard 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.


BLOCK: In January, the Environmental Protection Agency blocked most of the mining at the Spruce No. 1 site. Arch Coal has filed suit challenging that decision. James Weekley continues to live in his house in Pigeonroost Hollow. His story was produced by Joe Richmond and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries. The editors were Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.


NORRIS: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.