Rotten Fish Tales: A radical form of coal mining wreaks havoc in Appalachia
By Alex Tizon
It had been years since he laid eyes on it. Longer still since he held it in his hand, the old walleye lure his uncle had given him more than 55 years ago. Franklin Phillips refused to store it among the other fishing plugs in his tackle box. This one he kept in an empty jar, like a display case.
On a sweltering July afternoon in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, in a small house near Fishtrap Lake, Phillips creaked up from his basement holding the jar. “I want to show you,” he said, catching his breath and shuffling into his tiny living room. He fell onto the couch. “This here is the one I was talking about. Ain’t no fish can resist it. I’ve had fish hit it that weren’t no bigger than the plug.”
Walleye, crappie, bluegill, large-mouth bass, mud cat — you name it, he said, he’d caught it with this thing. By the dozens, the hundreds, since he was old enough to hold a pole. The lure was about three inches long, avocado green with spots and bugged-out eyes. Phillips picked it out of the jar and gazed at it like it was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen.
But there was sadness in his admiring eyes. He handed over the lure as much to show me what he had lost. What most everyone around Fishtrap Lake had lost: a way of life, yes, but also, Phillips said, “the most fun a man could have on God’s Earth,” especially in this far-flung corner of the Appalachians. Phillips no longer fishes. The waters in which he fished his entire life are no longer hospitable.
Decades of coal mining have poured sediment and untold billions of gallons of pollutants into Fishtrap Lake and its environs. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating in the ’90s, a particularly destructive form of coal mining called mountaintop-removal mining laid waste to vast regions of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The practice continues. By 2010, an estimated 1.4 million acres — equivalent to the land area of Delaware — will have been mined through mountaintop removal.
The method, a radical form of surface mining, entails blowing off the tops of hills and mountains to get at the seams of coal underneath. The debris is then bulldozed into the valleys and hollows below, burying streams, demolishing habitat, and damaging ecosystems. Formerly lush mountains have turned into bombed-out moonscapes, verdant valleys into barren deserts. Sediment by the millions of tons has reached the lake and filled in much of it, transforming once deep pools into swamps. For the coal companies, mountaintop-removal mining is a cheaper way to extract coal than underground mining; it requires fewer people and less mechanical finesse. For the people who live here, and whose families have lived for generations off the bounty of the land and water, it has meant the systematic obliteration of their home.
FISHTRAP IS A 16-MILE-LONG artificially created lake, narrow and serpentine, in the heart of Pike County — population 66,000 — near where Kentucky meets Virginia and West Virginia. The area is perhaps best known in popular culture for the Hatfield-McCoy feud of the late 1800s, a long-running fight between two hill-country clans. It is a corner of the Appalachians where poor folk lived in isolation for generations, subsisting on small farms amid hardwood forests. To supplement their crops, residents hunted deer and wild turkey. And they fished. Families kept permanent trotlines in the rivers and lakes for a steady supply of fish. A life lived on water was precious.
The region had always been river country. Before the federal government built a dam in 1968 to create Fishtrap Lake, it was the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. Long after the dam was built, locals still sometimes referred to Fishtrap as “the river.” The area’s creeks and streams all lead there, a network of veins connecting to the heart. Most people live in the hollows — pronounced “hollers” by locals — through which the creeks run. Families identify themselves according to which creek or hollow they live in. Phillips belongs to the Phillips clan of Grapevine Creek at the southern tail of the lake.
Phillips dropped the lure back into the jar. He set it down with the collection of other fishing implements brought up from the basement. “C’mere,” he said, ambling onto his front porch. Phillips is 67 and in poor health. Cancer racks his body. “Follow me.”
Across the road from his house, the creek, a narrow ribbon of dark water, trickled past. “There are a couple up yonder,” he said, pointing a gnarled finger at the hills looming above his roofline. “And they’re about to start in on that mountain right there.” His finger now pointed in the direction of the dark green mound directly in front of his house. He was indicating the locations of coal mines, past, present, and future. He was surrounded. Phillips made his way to the driveway at the back of the house, where a 14-foot aluminum skiff sat attached to a trailer. Like his favorite lure, the boat was green with spots. Phillips had painted it himself. He slapped at the aluminum hull. “I’d say it’s been five years since this has touched the water.”
Then he told me about one afternoon, a lifetime ago, sitting in this very boat out on the lake, when he got a fearsome tug on his line. He and his uncle, Grayson Williams, wondered if he’d snagged a tree limb. It turned out to be the biggest catch of Phillips’s life, a 35-inch walleye, gleaming in the summer sun. While he told the story, his eyes watered and turned red. He slapped at the aluminum again.
DOWN THE ROAD FROM PHILLIPS and higher in the hills, among groves of intertwining oaks and maples, Ermel Bevins, 71, spends the days tending his roosters. He has more than a hundred, fighting cocks all. He devotes an entire wall in his house to displaying the dozens of plaques and trophies he’s won in cockfighting tourneys. This and fishing are his passions. He speaks with glee about his roosters; about fishing he speaks in a tone more akin to nostalgia.
From the time he was a young boy until he was a young man, Bevins would go fishing “just about every weekend,” he said. And he had the best luck at a “secret spot” near where the Levisa Fork meets the southernmost tip of Fishtrap Lake. Even now he seemed reluctant to reveal the exact coordinates. Suffice to say it took an hour of hard hiking from his family home to get to the spot. He usually went with a buddy or two.
“We’d get up first thing in the morning and take us a pound of corn bread, some potatoes, and a bagful of biscuits. We’d go to the garden and pull up some green onions. One of us would remind the other to bring a cast-iron skillet and some lard,” Bevins said.
He pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and took a deep drag. “We’d set off over the mountain to our secret spot, and we’d set up camp. We’d fish all day and all night and sometimes through the next day and the next night. We fished under the stars. We’d have chicken livers for catfish, red worms for everything else.”
Another drag. A pause, his eyes far away. “Once we caught us a mud cat. We figured it was 50 pounds, maybe more. That same weekend, we got us five blue cats, 22 to 24 inches. We threw a few of the smaller ones on the skillet with the potatoes and onions and fried them all up together right there by the river. I still remember the smell. Tasted pretty good too.”
Like Phillips, Bevins no longer fishes, and for the same reasons. He’d seen the mine wastewater — called slurry — turn the lake all kinds of colors: orange one day, black the next, white after that. Sometimes an iridescent sheen would blanket the water. He’d go to his favorite fishing holes, once 40 feet deep, and find them filled almost to the surface with sediment. Bevins nevertheless continued to fish the lake through the 1980s and most of the ’90s. But everything changed when the fish began showing signs of sickness.
“They’d have these big sores, as big around as strawberries. And they’d be moving real slow,” Bevins said. That did it. About ten years ago, he got rid of his boats–he had three–and put away his fishing gear for good. It was not worth the risk. “I miss fishing. I love fishing. I love eating fish. I grew up on it. Now the only fish we eat comes from Food City.”
East of Bevins’s homestead, in a secluded hollow along Island Creek, Doug Justice rocked on a creaky old chair next to his friend Ken Taylor. Justice is in his 60s, Taylor in his 40s. The two sat on a wide porch. Wind chimes hovered overhead, sounding like faint church bells. In the distance a chorus of cicadas buzzed among the trees.
Justice, a big-hearted, ham-fisted gentleman who calls everybody “honey,” spoke of the first time he went fishing. He was seven. His pole was a bent sycamore branch, his line a length of thread. He fashioned a hook from an old straight pin. The bait, a red worm. His first catch: “It was a big ol’ sucker, honey.” But it was he who got hooked. From then on, Justice fished every chance he got.
Once, when he was a teenager, he packed a mule and rode over the mountains to his favorite spot. From the bank Justice pulled up a 28-inch catfish. Biggest one he ever caught. He didn’t want anything to happen to it until he showed it to his family. He rode the mule home, the whole time holding the fish by the tail with one hand. “Talk about one tired arm, honey. I had one that day!”
He still fishes the lake occasionally, but years have passed since he’s eaten anything caught in it. “You’d pull ’em up and they’d be slimy more than usual,” Justice said. “There’d be something not right about ’em.” These days he is strictly catch and release.
Justice struck me as the kind of man who could be angry and still keep a gentle expression. He was mad at the coal companies. Fuming inside. He’d spent 22 years working in a deep mine, but he felt no kinship to the companies now “blowing up the mountains” and “filling up the hollers.” It was a different business altogether, and he’d taken to feuding with them. He’d called everybody — local politicians and coal reps mostly — to complain.
“Evidently we don’t count,” Justice said. “They don’t care a twit about us up here, to tell you the truth. That’s what it comes down to, honey.”
Up the road along Island Creek, a hulking man by the name of Raul Torres Urias II — everybody calls him Rully — fumes and feuds in his own way. He packs a gun. The coal companies have been pressuring him to sell his property for years. Rully, 29, has not budged and does not plan to. “I was born on Island Creek,” he said. “My family’s been here since 1825. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
It was a sentiment echoed over and over in my talks with people here. As much as life has changed —”There’s hardly nothin’ left that I grew up with,” in Rully’s words — many residents won’t move because of an indescribable attachment to the place.
“My family’s been fishing and hunting these mountains for going on a couple hundred years,” Rully said. “They taught their children. My uncle taught me to fish. I’d like to teach my little girl — she’s five — but I don’t think it can happen. The lake’s dying. The chain’s been broken. It makes me mad and sad. Nothing’s hurt me more. But I’ve traveled a lot, and I can’t see anyplace else in this world where I’d belong.”