Family files lawsuit to protect Boone Co., WV cemetery from mini - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Family files lawsuit to protect Boone Co., WV cemetery from mining

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Debbie Jarrell visits the graves of her family members in Boone County, WV. Debbie Jarrell visits the graves of her family members in Boone County, WV.
Twilight, WV -

Family members visited their family cemetery today after filing a lawsuit to repair and protect it from being damaged by nearby mining in Boone County, WV.

(Relatives filed the lawsuit on August 22 in Boone County Circuit Court.)

The Twilight Surface Mine complex was once owned by Massey Energy and now is owned by Alpha Natural Resources.  It's also where Jarrell Family Cemetery is located.

"I don't know why anybody would want to be buried here now," said plaintiff Dustin White. "You're being buried in the middle of a construction zone basically with heavy explosives going off around you. I don't know how anybody can rest in peace anymore."

13 News accompanied a group of relatives to the cemetery Monday. One of the family's major complaints is the procedure behind visiting the site.

"For it to turn into what it has, it totally breaks my heart to go through what you have to go through to come up here," said plaintiff Debbie Jarrell, who visited the cemetery for the first time in 35 years.

An agreement between the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Alpha Natural Resources allows relatives to visit cemeteries located on mine sites.

The deal preceded Alpha leasing the property and started in the late 1990s, according to Nick Johnson, an attorney with Alpha.

Family members must ask Alpha permission ten days in advance if they wish to go onto the property. Visitors must also undergo a safety-training course, ensuring they know the dangers of visiting a strip mine.  Everyone signs a waiver, acknowledging these dangers and promising to refrain from take pictures on Alpha property with the exception of the cemetery.

The group waited 50 minutes before gaining entry Monday. Plaintiff Danny Cook made a reservation for two people to visit Monday. Instead, six people showed up to the coal mine.

Prepared for only two visitors, an attorney for Alpha and security guards spent additional time clearing all the visitors' names.

DEP inspectors escorted the family to the site. The rocky, steep trip lasted nearly 30 minutes. While the family pays respects, inspectors give them privacy.

Benny Campbell, one of the DEP inspectors, said he just wants everyone to follow the rules.

"The law specifies that no surface mining operations may encroach within 100 foot of the boundary of a cemetery," said Campbell, referring to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

The family claims Alpha violated this law. White pointed out chipped headstones Monday, alleging that flyaway rocks from the mining production could have damaged the cemetery.

Campbell said the coal company plans to build a more permanent path to the cemetery within the next year.  According to Jarrell, a path is not enough. She wants her own entrance, where she can visit her ancestors when she pleases, without an escort.

Alpha spokesperson Ted Pile said the company tries working with the family, but wants to make sure everyone stays safe.

"We're consistently demonstrated that [we're] more than willing to accommodate visitation as long as visitors follow these required safety rules which are for their own protection," Pile said.

The spokesperson claimed that "the Jarrell family sold their mineral surface rights to the landowner so they could obtain royalties," approximately 50 years ago.

"I believe at that time the cemetery plot was 'carved' out from the agreement so the plot would remain undisturbed and the family members could have access in perpetuity," Pile said.

In response to the accusations about grave desecration, Johnson said he does not believe Alpha played any part in damaging the cemetery. Johnson provided three photographs of the site; from 1995, 2008, and 2009. Based on these pictures, it unclear whether any damage was done to the headstones.

In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey Energy. Progress Energy operates the Twilight mine. According to Pile, Progress leases the mineral rights from Berwind Land Company.