Anger at Senseless Death
Boy Killed by Flyrock; Va. Residents Cite Flawed Regs
Washington Post, Jan. 6, 2005
APPALACHIA, Va. It hurled like a cannonball into Dennis and Cindy Davidsons house, right through the wall of the bedroom and onto the bed where 3-year-old Jeremy was sleeping.
The huge boulder continued its path, crashing through a closet before finally stopping at the foot of 8-year-old Zacharys bed. Zachary would be fine. Jeremy was crushed to death.
A bulldozer operator widening a road at a strip mining operation atop Black Mountain had unknowingly dislodged the half-ton boulder that August night. And now, more than four months later, Jeremys death is still being felt across the coal mines of southwestern Virginia.
For many residents, the toddlers death has come to symbolize what they consider the companies and the states callous disregard for their safety.
"Since the child got killed, its sort of like when the towers got bombed and the country came together," said Carl "Pete" Ramey, a coal miner turned anti-strip-mining activist. "The death of an innocent child that had nothing to do with whats going on has brought us together. I think a lot of people feel guilty they didnt do something before."
A special prosecutor is investigating whether to bring criminal charges. The state mining agency has fined the mining company $15,000 the legal maximum and proposed changes in the lawThe Davidsons, who have filed a $26.5 million lawsuit against the mining operators, are hoping that Jeremys death will be a catalyst for change.
"I keep asking Cindy, Why couldnt we have had his bed sitting against another wall? " Dennis Davidson said in an interview as his wife sat beside him, wiping away tears.I dont want my sons death to be in vain. I want to see changes in the laws so that something this stupid and careless doesnt happen again."
The hollows outside town, like the one where the Davidsons lived, were bucolic and peaceful places until recently. About five years ago, surface mining started moving from distant mountaintops to the hills directly above Appalachia, reflecting a dramatic upswing in the fortunes of coal.
Coal produces more than half the electricity generated in the United States, and expanding economies in this country and China have created a huge demand for electricity. With natural gas prices soaring, coal is more competitive. More coal-fired power plants have been announced in the last 12 months than in the previous 12 years, according to the National Mining Association. There is even a labor shortage.
But in the valleys of southwestern Virginia, resistance to surface mining has been building as residents say their lives have grown unbearable.
Ramey last year moved away from his house of 37 years, believing that the blasting required in surface mining was sending rocks flying into his yard. Dorothy Taulbee quit sitting on her porch and hanging clothes out to dry because of dust from coal hauling trucks that speed by her house. Since Jeremy Davidsons death, Mary Crow Pace considers it too dangerous for her great-grandson to visit.
"Its been horrible," said Pace, who lives nearby. "The blasting caused so much shaking and rocking when I was standing in the bathroom the other day. If I hadnt been holding on to the basin, I believe I would have fallen over. Ive been here 77 years, and I havent seen anything like this. It aint no fun living here anymore. Its a scary place."
Many residents said they were not surprised that someone was killed, though they never imagined it would be a sleeping child.
Asked why surface mining is permitted near residential neighborhoods, agency spokesman Mike Abbott replied, "Because state and federal laws allow it." He cited laws prohibiting surface mining within 300 feet of an occupied dwelling and within 100 feet of a public road.
The Davidsons say they would be pleased if new requirements arising from their tragedy were passed. They would like them to be known as "Jeremys law."
The accident has been particularly hard on Zachary, they said. Most weekends, they take him to visit his brothers grave. He usually picks up the ceramic bunny rabbits the Davidsons have placed among the artificial flowers.
After one of their last visits, he told them, "When we
move, I dont want to live by a hill. I may be next."