From a chair on the porch of her home in a hollow deep in the Appalachians, Lora can see the top of Montcoal Mountain being blasted off. The explosions a mile and a half away ruffle her curtains, rattle family photos in her living room, and may be why her walls are laced with cracks. A fine gray dust settles on the steps as fast as she can sweep it off. The noise and "fly rock" raining down have forced her daughter and dozens of neighbors to sell their houses and move away. Lora worries she'll be next. "I wouldn't be satisfied with another place," she says, sitting and chain-smoking Pall Malls. "I raised my kids here. Where would a person go?"
But fighting isn't an option for Lora, who asked me not to use her real name for fear of repercussions: The mining operations that are destroying the land also employ her son and son-in-law—good jobs, the only real ones around. "It's the way of life here; there's nothing else," says the 54-year-old grandmother. Like many West Virginia coal towns  that have shifted from underground mining to far more destructive mountaintop-removal mining , this hamlet, known as Twilight , is now in the business of burying itself alive.
Many blame Twilight's slow demise on Massey Energy , the state's second largest coal producer  (PDF)—and its most controversial . Massey, which merged with Alpha Natural Resources  earlier this year, has racked  up more health and safety violations in the past decade than any coal outfit in America. In 1997, it opened a surface strip mine near Twilight that now produces 5 million tons of coal annually, all of it dug up and hauled off by about 350 non-union workers (PDF ). Many families that weren't lucky enough to land jobs on the strip have left. The area's population has fallen from more than 500 in 1990 to less than 250 today. "With mountaintop removal, they can get the coal easier and quicker with less people," Frankie Mooney , a retired third-generation miner, told me. "People can say what they want to, but there's no security in coal mining no more."
Small-scale mining began in central Appalachia in the early 1800s, and by the end of the century, coal had become a major industry. The Twilight area's first coal mine opened in the 1940s. For a while, money from the mines seemed to coat the town as easily as the black dust that blew off the coal trains. Due in part to the efforts of the fiery turn-of-the-century labor organizer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones , the roughly 1,000 union workers who toiled underground during the height of the mining boom of the late '70s enjoyed some of the best benefits in the country. At one time, the Twilight area boasted two grocery stores, a company store called the Robin Hood, a movie theater, and a mine-sponsored softball league.