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When Wall Street came to coal country: how a big-money gamble scarred Appalachia


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When Wall Street came to coal country: how a...
Mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

Around the turn of the millennium, hedge fund investors put an audacious bet on coal mining in the US. The bet failed – but it was the workers and the environment that paid the price

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Like so much about the US’s agonies in these years, the clearest accounting of history was inscribed on the land itself. In Greenwich, Ara Cohen, the cofounder of Knighthead Capital Management, eventually sold his Georgian manor in the Golden Triangle, in order to move to Florida. For the house, he received $17.5m – less than he had hoped, but enough to be the most expensive home sale in town that year.

Six hundred miles away, the Hobet Mine was eventually abandoned. Nobody was going to pay the millions required for environmental remediation. There was talk of building a Walmart up on the strange plateau, with its Asian grasses and Russian trees. But by then, almost all of the potential customers, like the Caudills, were long gone. The Walmart plan never happened.

Finally, the state settled on a very different use – a plan rich with unintended symbolism. In 2017, West Virginia announced that the mine would be put to use as a training ground for the Army National Guard. The barren landscape would be a classroom for teaching local soldiers how to parachute into foreign lands and survive in hostile environments.

This is an edited extract from Wildland by Evan Osnos, published by Bloomsbury and available at guardianbookshop.com

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  • West Virginia
  • Coal
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Around the turn of the millennium, hedge fund investors put an audacious bet on coal mining in the US. The bet failed – but it was the workers and the environment that paid the price

Once or twice a generation, Americans rediscover Appalachia. Sometimes, they come to it through caricature – the cartoon strip Li’l Abner or the child beauty pageant star Honey Boo Boo or, more recently, Buckwild, a reality show about West Virginia teenagers, which MTV broadcast with subtitles. Occasionally, the encounter is more compassionate. In 1962, the social critic Michael Harrington published The Other America, which called attention to what he described as a “vicious circle of poverty” that “twists and deforms the spirit”.

Around the turn of this century, hedge funds in New York and its environs took a growing interest in coalmines. Coal never had huge appeal to Wall Street investors – mines were dirty, old-fashioned and bound up by union contracts that made them difficult to buy and sell. But in the late 1990s, the growing economies of Asia began to consume more and more energy, which investors predicted would drive up demand halfway around the world, in Appalachia. In 1997, the Hobet mine, a 25-year-old operation in rural West Virginia, was acquired for the first time by a public company, Arch Coal. It embarked on a major expansion, dynamiting mountaintops and dumping the debris into rivers and streams. As the Hobet mine grew, it consumed the ridges and communities around it. Seen from the air, the mine came to resemble a giant grey amoeba – 22 miles from end to end – eating its way across the mountains.

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