Roy Exum: ‘Gray Mountain’ And Dayton Mountain

  • Tuesday, November 11, 2014
  • Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

After state and federal officials approved deep coal mining operations for Dayton Mountain in late October, I’ve got a dollar against your dime there is somebody who is betting not many people read best sellers in Rhea County. The trouble is that I still do and over the weekend I enjoyed what is today the No. 1 book in America, according to the New York Times. It is a legal thriller entitled, “Gray Mountain,” which was written by the greatest story teller of our day, John Grisham.

Yes, it is fiction but, like all of Grisham’s books, it is a spectacular read based on keen research of ugly facts. This time the villain, in not such a make-believe way, is Big Coal. What the coal industry has done throughout the years in Southern Appalachia is well documented and Grisham’s ability to paint a realistic – and quite graphic – picture is masterful. The book is centered on a poverty-ridden town in Kentucky, which is a long way from Dayton, Tenn., but the parallels are so chilling they hit close to home.

I have no reason to doubt officials at Iron Properties, LLC, know what they are doing as they forge forward towards opening what will be called the Liberty Mine, a 127-acre surface mine that hopes to be in operation by 2017. I am also smart enough to know there is a whole lot of money to be made if Iron Properties can haul a projected 2.8 million tons off the top of Dayton Mountain in the next seven years and cart it to China where air quality is a Western joke.

Still, good for them if it is done in a forthright and responsible way but – in candor -- government figures reveal surface mining has now obliterated over 2,000 miles of streams in Tennessee, Kentucky and two other states. Grisham’s book, to the delight of booksellers from here to Seattle, is flying off the shelves but it also offers a dire warning what could happen if Iron Properties, located in Dayton, is not a diligent servant.

I’m told there is a pretty thick vein of coal – the Richland Seam -- that runs for 75 miles down what is called the Cumberland Escarpment with the most around Walden’s Ridge. The plan calls for the Liberty Mine and a smaller Security Mine, if it can be permitted, to employ up to 300 workers who will chisel between 600 and 1,000 feet off the top of the mountain. This is exactly what was done in Grisham’s book.

But in “Gray Mountain,” there are gruesome slurry ponds and black-water spills. Some miners eager to make a $50,000/annual wage are stricken with fatal “Black Lung” and a host of other problems. As a review of the book in the Christian Science Monitor read, “John Grisham makes a powerful closing argument against Big Coal, but the message never obscures a satisfying, old fashioned, good guy-bad guy legal thriller.”

Another review was equally ominous. Pat Anderson in the Washington Post called the book “An important new novel … Grisham’s work—always superior entertainment—is evolving into something more serious, more powerful, more worthy of his exceptional talent.” 

If folks in Rhea County will read the book, they’ll find out what Anderson means by “more serious, more powerful and more worthy.” Big Coal is not to be taken lightly and, if done by scurrilous operators, its aftermath can be devastating. Big Coal’s history is chilling indeed and today haunts the South. That, of course, is Grisham’s hook.

Look at facts: in December of 2008 abnormal rainfall caused a TVA dike in Kingston containing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash to spill into the Emory and Clinch Rivers and smother about 300 acres of land. The slow-moving wave of thick sludge and polluted water turned into the largest coal ash spill in America’s history. Enough muck spewed forth to fill a football field more than 2,500 feet into the air. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation hit TVA (U.S. Govt.) with an $11.5 million fine. The clean-up? $1.2 billion and counting, this six years later to the taxpayers’ chagrin.

You say that’s coal ash – burned coal – which isn’t fair since the Dayton mines will yield raw coal. Try this: In January 2012 a discharge pipe at a slurry pond operated by Premium Coal Company was set too low in Anderson County (where Clinton, Tn., is the county seat) and heavy rains caused over a million gallons of untreated water and coal-material (“slurry”) to spill into the New River in upper East Tennessee. The spill was actually sighted 40 miles downriver days later and that much water was undrinkable. The environmental consequence, my friend, is measured in years.

Premium Coal, owned by James C. Justice of West Virginia, has a colorful history of violations, mind you, but the state fine was just $50,000. In Grisham’s “Gray Mountain,” the well-versed author contends that this is exactly how Big Coal works. Wouldn’t you swap a $50,000 fine for what Premium Coal sold in Anderson County coal? And how about this? Premium hired contractor Steve Howard to clean up the spill and it took him over a year to get paid. Premium Coal claimed he didn’t have a purchase order after telling him to start immediately. Eventually he was paid, according to wire reports.

This February a broken pipe sent over 100,000 gallons of contaminated slurry into a West Virginia stream, affecting thousands, this one month after a coal industry chemical spill spewed into the Elk River and ruined the drinking water for 300,000, also in West Virginia. In North Carolina a coal ash spill sent 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River where it has since coated the river bottom for 80 miles with killing waste.

What you need to know is what Grisham presents in his book -- Big Coal has kept government regulators at bay. Unbelievably, coal ash ponds and slurry pounds are not regulated by the federal government. According to an article earlier this year by the McClatchy News Group, “The environmental group Earthjustice has singled out Texas and Georgia as having particularly lax regulations, and the group documented 208 coal ash storage sites in 37 states with contamination or spills.”

My big hope is that the Rhea County School Board will make John Grisham’s latest thriller required reading. It tears the top off the Big Coal industry and, if you think it is unfair for me to draw a parallel between a fictitious book and a coal-mining operation that will scalp Dayton Mountain, allow me to point out, “Fair is a place you take your favorite pig in the summertime.”

You’ll love John Grisham’s new book, “Gray Mountain.”



John Grisham's latest book, "Gray Mountain" is a 386-page thriller that takes a hard look at the Big Coal industry. It is currently No. 1 on the New York Times best seller list.
John Grisham's latest book, "Gray Mountain" is a 386-page thriller that takes a hard look at the Big Coal industry. It is currently No. 1 on the New York Times best seller list.
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