Usually when people mention Dingess, the word tunnel isn't far behind. The community's most unforgettable feature is the half-mile-long, single-lane tunnel through a mountain as you approach Dingess from Laurel Lake to the southwest. It's dark and scary in that tunnel. As you halt at one end, you squint and peer into the tunnel, looking for any faint sign of lights from a car. Gathering courage, you edge into the tunnel and pray until you see daylight at the other end.
Like the darkness of the tunnel, Dingess is a hidden corner of Mingo County. It seems to suffer from the worst roads. The county route is dotted with nearly a dozen one lane bridges with wooden ties. Often a few ties have popped up and present a valid road hazard. Parents worry constantly about the school buses crossing these bridges. Rumors of vote buying abound. In the election of 2000, the candidates for County Sheriff and County Commission who campaigned against vote buying held their breath until the votes from Dingess had been counted. True to form, Dingess was one of a handful of precincts where the vote was strongly against the good-government slate.
The mining problems in Dingess have been able to fester with little notice as well. The community stretches along Route 3 from the intersection with the road from Laurel Lake all the way to Breeden. Most of the houses are clustered close to the road without too many hollows. The road sways back and forth along the curves of the streams. A number of substantial brick homes are interspersed with more modest modular houses. There are a few houses that date back to early decades of the 20th century, and even a few small farms.
The community is sandwiched between several mining operations. For most of the 1990s, the mines were along the northeast side of Route 3 and were of the smaller persuasion--about 300 to 700 acres. More recently, the Marrowbone mine, now owned by Addington, began expanding up from Laurel Lake and will nearly touch the southeast side of Route 3.
But just because the mines were smallish, the blasting problems weren't. They just moved around a bit. In 1997 and 1998, Pen Coal was mining in back of Route 3, and its blasting drew complaints all the way from the Dingess Post Office to Breeden.
"You would think an airplane blew up." That's how the blasting felt to Loretta DeJesus. "I thought my whole house was sinking," she said. The damages appeared about six or seven months after the blasting began. The cinder blocks have cracks, and the house seems like it's pitching forward precipitously toward the creek. Teh water is undrinkable. She spent $5,000 on a filtering system, but it doesn't purify the water. "I know they have to make a living," she said. "But Lord, oh mercy, the damage is bad. I've been here 27 years and never had such problems."
Sharon Johnson lives about three miles from DeJesus, in a comfortable home tucked under the hill from the mine. Usually she was at work when the blasts came. The only sign she saw was the damage. Like ghosts at work, there would be a pretty lamp with a china top fallen and smashed, the fireplace wall crakced, the foundation blocks split. But one day she came home from work early. Next thing she knew it felt like they were having an earthquake. Themirror above the couch fell to the floor.
Thinking the mine would reimburse them for damages, they called. It was two months before someone arrived. They were given a number to call for an insurance adjuster. They wanted to find an attorney but doubted any would take the case.
"I don't want any money or anything," Russell Johnson said. "I just want my house fixed the way it was when it started."
Unfortunately, fixing the Peggy and Bill Parsley's house is impossible. It burned to the ground while they were on vacation in September 1997, and they blame the blasting.
Peggy Parsley doesn't like to look at the shell that was once her home. For about a year after the fire, she and Bill lived in a trailer they placed nearby. Arguments with the insurance company over compensation for the furniture and other belongings stretched for months. She could describe the lost antiques in loving detail. Finally, they just moved out of Mingo County completely.
They lived with half a mile of the mine entrance. When the blasts came, the house just shook. Their neighbor Clarence Marcum could stand in front of the still-standing chimney and describe the damage from memory: one to one and a half inch cracks in the walls, the wall that pulled loose from ceiling, oil in the water. "Pen Coal shot so much harderthan anything else," he said. "It was like shaking earth all around you."
The official cause of the fire was a short in the air conditioning system. But the Parsleys and Marcum think the blasting just shook everyting so hard that it weakened the electrical system. No one will ever know for sure.
Stanley Marcum lives halfway between Dingess and Breeden. His house shook, too--for several years. First it was Pen Coal; then Tri-County, owned by two local men, bought Pen Coal's coal leases and mined along the ridge across the road from his home. It was small mine, purposely designed without any valley fills. And the blasts were small, often less than 1,000 pounds. But that didn't reduce their impact.
Marcum, a disabled miner in his 50s, lives where he was born, in a two-story house on the banks of the West Fork of Twelvepole Creek. Steel blue, the house has been carefully restored. Birds gather at the feeders near the creek bank, and Marcum built a garage a few years ago. His wife has a beauty parlor in the rear of the house and is home most of the day.
When Pen Coal was blasting about half a mile down the road three years ago, Marcum did complain to DEP a few times even though his home wasnt among the closest. Last year and this past winter, his house was frequently just about the closest to Tri-County. Blasting was occurring on the ridges lying to the northeast, across the creek and road from his house. Only now, he was reluctant to complain because he had gone to school with one of the owners.
Still, his wife kept careful track of the blasts, noting down the ones that were the most bothersome. Marcum believes the cracks in the foundation have grown worse because of the blasting. He showed me how the bottom wall of his living room bows outward into the room. Whether these irregularities were caused by blasting will be up to an engineer. What is clear, though, is that the blasting is annoying and sometimes scary. The house just shakes and shakes, according to Marcum and his son.
The Marcum family has been working in the mines for decades. Stanley worked as a deep miner at Marrowbone for more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, Marrowbone ousted the UMWA, but Marcum stayed on. He had the misfortune to be in a mine fall, breaking his back in several places. Though he is fortunate to be able to walk, he cant go back to work. The mine paid the medical bills for his accident, but he is now like many disabled miners in their 50s and early 60s: without medical coverage until he reaches retirement age. Marcums son drove a coal truck at Pen Coal, but recently switched to driving for Marrowbone.
A new permit for Marrowbones mountaintop mine is approaching Marcums house from the southwest. The pond for the valley fill will be about 300 feet from his backyard. "I was born here," he said. "But if they bought me out, I would leave."
Mining has been on the hill to the right, opposite the Marcums' home. Now it is also on the left mountain.