33-year-old West Virginia man Junior Walk has been plagued by coal his entire life. His schoolyard growing up was covered in coal dust. He followed his family’s footsteps and joined the coal mining industry. Walk has seen the negative effects of coal in his community and since the age of 19, has protested against the coal industry despite the displeasure of his community. More recently, he has deployed unique methods against his adversary.
“My ultimate hope is to shut down the coal industry,” he told The Guardian. “In order to get anything else new here, you’ve got to burn it down first.” Walk is embarking on this endeavor with a powerful weapon: a drone. His mission is to capture footage of environmental infringements by flying a drone over mountains enveloped in dense forests and marred with mines that resemble distorted gray landscapes. The occasional blast reverberates, a signal of the explosions used to remove mountain tops and access the coal inside, a mining method that Walk views as especially destructive and devastating to the environment.
Walk has been working closely with the non-profit Coal River Mountain Watch since 2015, documenting evidence to be used in lodging dozens of complaints to state regulators. “I sometimes get footage of huge plumes of blasting dust that some people just think is fake, like I work for Industrial Light & Magic or something,” he said to The Guardian.
This endeavor has led to several penalties being levied on mining enterprises, while not enough to threaten the industry’s stronghold, it serves to be a constant irritant, an underdog resistance taking place in the mountains of an otherwise compliant state. “I just want to do anything to be a pain in the ass to the coal industry,” Walk said to The Guardian. “Anything that can cost them a dollar, because the only thing these people care about is the money in their pockets. Our community is expendable to them.”
Walk’s footage can serve as an “initiation” to inquiries by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, according to a spokesperson from the agency. Certain coal corporations in the area are habitual culprits – for instance, the Lexington Coal Company has been guilty of over 430 infringements since 2015.
However, fighting back against a coal mining company in a community that depends on coal mining jobs brings on a lot of backlash for Walk. He’s a notable figure and character in his community and has faced much ridicule and even threats for the work he is doing. “I don’t have a lot of friends around here,” Walk admitted to The Guardian. His father, who currently suffers from what Walk refers to as “prep plant shakes” – a condition resembling Parkinson’s, purportedly resulting from his tenure in a coal preparation plant – backs him but has faced intense criticism from his peers due to his son’s actions.
While imminent threats worry Walk, it hasn’t stopped his work with the drone. According to Erin Savage, who works on coal issues at environmental group Appalachian Voices, Walk’s continued work is an “important part of making sure coal companies aren’t breaking the law. Using a drone helps avoid trespassing issues and allows Junior to see areas of a mine that would not otherwise be publicly accessible.”
Walk is skeptical of the trendy concept of a “just transition” to clean energy jobs for his community members, who, according to research, face a higher risk of heart, kidney, and lung diseases, and other conditions like asthma, due to the air and groundwater contamination from coal mining operations. Coal, as the most polluting of all fossil fuels, significantly contributes to global warming, leading to the extreme heat waves that have hit the US and other parts of the world this summer.
For Walk, battling the deep-rooted norms often appears to be a hopeless task. There was a time when he had ambitions of attending art school and leaving his hometown, as many young people aspire to do. However, he has now come to terms with spending the rest of his life locked in a struggle against coal.
“I can’t give up,” he said to The Guardian. “They’ve already pretty much won. They can do whatever the hell they want, but I’m still alive. I’m still breathing, and so I’m going to cost them as much money as I humanly can while I’m still on this earth. Because I’m right and they’re wrong.”