Mud River hasn't been much of a community for more than two decades. The Post Office and the school have been gone for a long time. But for the past 30 or so years it has been home to about 60 families. One of the abandoned houses in Mud River
The residents had two churches and a ballfield. The flat land along the river was dark and fertile. Corn and vegetables grew well on the few acres. Some families had a few horses and cattle pastured on the flat land.
No longer. Where there were once some 60 families, only five remained at the beginning of 1998. Arch Coal Inc.'s Hobet21 mine is expanding across the Boone County line into Lincoln. As in Blair, the land company offered to buy the houses. In Mud River, many people were given houses in other areas. After the people moved out, the houses in Mud River were left vacant. A few were burned. But more often they are partially stripped by vandals and left with broken windows and ragged holes. "It's depressing," says Lorene Caudill, one of the few remaining residents.
In early 1997, Big John, the mine's 20-story dragline, had to walk from the old mining area to the new one above Mud River. The easiest route was across the road -- about 40 feet up. Giant machines dumped enough earth to create a high bridge for Big John. Round midnight on one of the coldest nights of the year it crept across. It took another week to clear the dirt from the road. Meanwhile the residents of Mud River had to travel several extra miles to reach the four-lane highway, Corridor G.
West Virginia's then longest valley fill was approved at Connelly Branch, less than half a mile from the start of Mud River. The fill will come two miles from the mine to the river. Already a large sedimentation pond has been built at the end of the valley. A rock-lined channel leads from the pond towards the river. But on a rainy day in mid-January 1998, the pond was full and unable to trap all the sediment. A light colored ribbon of mud ran from the valley fill into Mud River, further worsening the sedimentation problems of waterways in the area.
When Therman and Lorene Caudill moved to their present home Mud River in 1966, they planned to stay the rest of their lives. In the early years there was a moratorium on strip mining in Lincoln County. So they had few concerns about mines. With little notice, the moratorium expired when the federal law was passed in 1977. The community was peaceful until Hobet21 moved in a couple of years ago. The Caudills were told the mine would be directly behind them by the Spring of 1998.
Though the blasting is still more than a mile away, the Caudills' dishes rattle when a shot is let off. They are considering having a pre-blast survey done themselves. Though the edge of the mine is right above their house, the mine has not offered them a pre-blast survey.
Therman Caudill plans to plant his usually abundant garden again when the weather warms a bit in the Spring. A sign of hope. But thoughts of moving are on his mind as well. He's just not sure he can find a place they like so much.
The house pictured above is gone now. And so are most of the residents of Mud River. Except Therman and Lorene Caudill. "I will be on a little island here," Caudill told officials from the Environmental Protection Agency who came to visit in June 2001.
Hobet 21 is mining in full swing behind the Caudills' house. The valley fill at Connelly Branch is well along now. In fact, there are two other fills about two miles up the road from the Caudill's house. After heavy rains in May, earth and rocks spilled out of the bottom of the fill and on to the road. Few people remain to travel the road, so it appeared that the mine didn't spend much effort keeping debris off the roadway.
Blasting has been a continual problem. Therman's brother complained a lot to the Department of Environmental Protection. The director of DEP actually issued orders to reduce the blasting. It didn't seem to help much. Finally, the land company associated with the mine bought him out--under one condition: He could not move back into the Mud River watershed, ever. Seemed the mine didn't want him complaining anymore. Bill Hoffman, who is one of the leaders of the EPA's environmental impact study of mountaintop removal, was shocked at the restriction. "We are still in America, aren't we?" he said.
Therman's not like his brother. "You have to complain to do any good," he said. "I don't want to do that." The mine does test the Caudills' water every month. But he couldn't remember where the results are stored. Hoffman told him those test results are important if he wants to prove water damages later. Caudill replied that the water certainly isn't as good as it had been. Now it smells like sulphur.
The Caudills' garden is as bountiful as ever. This late June afternoon, he sat on the porch, overlooking the garden and talked about moving away from the place he has lived in for 35 years. The man from the land company had been very nice, he said. Everyone who had moved out of Mud River has gotten at least as nice a house, and some have been better. The land agent has been offering to find him a house somewhere else. Well, maybe it's time, Caudill mused. Maybe he will ask for cash next time the land company man sits on his porch.