In 2019, Elaine Tanner and Jimmy Hall moved from their home in Ohio to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. The move took them away from years of environmental organizing in their home state and to a mountain holler in Letcher County. There, they endeavor to put back the pieces of a mountain blown apart for coal.
Their property sits off of a lonely state road, its gravel drive winding past a cluster of houses and trailers, before entering an old red gate leading to their camper and a small house. The two structures sit in a clearing bisected by a stream which the road follows as it narrows and continues up the mountain, getting ever more rugged as it goes.
This route was trafficked by coal mining vehicles, their beds full of black earth extracted from the top of the mountain. While the land hasn’t been mined for years, Jimmy and Elaine know the damage lingers. From orange, sulfuric water to invasive plants, the pair seek to start a process of healing for the mountain and to share their experience with others seeking environmental justice.
Jimmy grew up on Beaver Mountain, living with his grandmother while his father looked for better jobs in Ohio. One was eventually found, and Jimmy moved away from his grandmother. He said, “My grandmother begged us to stay. She begged us and I wanted to … She promised me. She said I’ll buy you a TV. She said I’ll buy you a BB gun. And she never would buy one. They didn’t believe in TV.”
Much of the mountain changed in his absence, as coal mining moved in while his uncle owned the property and leased it out. The property was mined for years by Consol Coal, although the permits have been bounced between a couple other companies in more recent years.
Both underground and surface mines exist on Beaver Mountain, but it was the latter mountain top removal that resulted in the destruction Jimmy and Elaine are working to heal. It created high walls, cliffs of exposed rock and coals seams, many of which are crumbling and taking the remaining natural landscape with it. Alongside the rock, mining stripped soil and vegetation from the mountain, leaving them barren. Companies spray hydroseed, a slurry of seed, mulch, fertilizer and other components, to beautify the rocky remains of mining.
Jimmy said, “It looks good from the road. If you look at properties that have been strip mined, everything — the vegetation that they spray on — there’s hydroseed.”
The hydroseed introduced invasive plants, such as the Autumn Olive trees which cover much of the strip-mined earth. In many places, the foreign trees are evident from their native neighbors. Two groves side by side, the autumn olives short and grayish-green in foliage while the native trees are towering and emerald.
Jimmy said, “It all needs cleaned up. It’ll probably never happen in my lifetime, but for the future, you know, for the future. It has to be done.”
Amid a cluster of Autumn Olives high on the mountain, another disruption is evident. A hollow fill sits above their property. The headwater of Mill Creek, a nearby stream, springs from this shifted earth and flows through their community and eventually into the Kentucky River. What should be pristine water rises from the earth in orange muck: mine acid, acidic liquid containing toxic metals.
If we have no water, then the quality of our foods, and the quality of the lands and everything will change.
While they don’t pull water directly from the creek, the leftovers from mining managed to percolate into the earth, ruining the water of both wells they had on the property. Elaine said, “We had the Department of Water from Kentucky, we had the Department of Mines doing water testing. And the first test to come back and the first report to come back said that the only thing we could do was flush our toilets with the water.”
Jimmy and Elaine went to DC with the issue, using the Safe Water Drinking Act to eventually get potable water for the 97 families which live on Mill Creek.
We are stewards of the land … We are in charge of it. We have the use of it — if we protect it. It’s when we don’t, that things start to fall apart.
Elaine and Jimmy took to the courts to find justice for Beaver Mountain, backed-up by evidence of ignored regulations, misused permits and unsafe water. Those legal fights have been ongoing for many of the 16 years the pair has owned the land, but as of moving down to the mountain, they’ve shifted priority to actions which better the community and heal the mountain.
The first of those priorities was the construction of a greenhouse. With the help of a friend and farmer who builds high tunnels, the structure was completed in late 2020. Jimmy and Elaine hope to grow produce on the damaged land and demonstrate that it’s still useful. However, the pair will also grow native plants in the high tunnel — plants which they can reintroduce to the parts of the mountain covered by invasive species.
Jimmy said, “I think it is a good thing for the community, and a good thing to get established around here; show people that you can do something with this property.”
The high tunnel was the first of multiple projects to that end. Jimmy and Elaine hope to grow produce, as well as native plants which they can then move to the mountain to fight against invasive species like the autumn olive.
They also hope to construct cabins, which will facilitate visitors staying on the mountain for extended periods. Elaine hopes they will hike around the property, see the devastation, the efforts to heal it and leave with a better understanding of the importance of water and the impacts of coal mining.
In addition to hosting guests, Elaine has organized water testing training on the property. Participants receive water testing kits and the knowledge they need to monitor water quality in their area.
In the flattened spaces at the top of the mountain, Jimmy and Elaine would like to build a solar array that could provide power for the surrounding community. Elaine said she is aiming for a “big solar project” that could generate power for the 97 families in their immediate community.
Alongside the solar project, they seek to remedy the contamination of Mill Creek. Elaine proposes a kelp remediation project, citing a model which has been employed in Pennsylvania. She hopes the process could create potable water and restore the health of Mill Creek’s ecosystem.
I’ve always felt really, really a part of this place because I was born here, okay? I’ve always loved it. I really have.
Years of work lie ahead, if all these goals are to be accomplished, but Jimmy and Elaine are content.
“They will never be on this mountain again,” Elaine said, “Jimmy’s a little bit older than me. If something happens to him. I have a life estate on this property that I will be here and I will protect it. And he has two generations that will follow me.”
“When me and her is gone, that somebody would be willing to take care of it, you know what I mean?” Jimmy said, “I figured if I can get it halfway decent, at least they can come up and clean my grave off once in a while.”