In "Coal River," Shnayerson focuses on one valley in southern West Virginia and the battle raging between many of its residents and Massey Energy (the largest of West Virginia's coal companies and the most egregious offender both in terms of the environment and its workers' well-being) and the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that issues mining permits.
The book reads in large part like a courtroom drama as activists file lawsuit after lawsuit in attempts to make changes not just to individual mines or permits, but to the whole mountaintop mining industry. It's not easy to make lawsuits and appeals scintillating reading, especially those that involve complex mining regulations and technical terminology. But Shnayerson does a valiant job, and for anyone remotely interested in the region, the coal industry, or the devastation being caused by mountaintop mining both to Appalachia's complex forest and stream ecology as well as to its rich culture, his book is gripping.
Real-life villains and heroes
It helps that, like any good narrative, there are clear heroes and villains. In this case, the story's main villain is Don Blankenship, Massey Energy's formidable CEO. Blankenship is a colorful character, with a hardscrabble childhood in the tiny West Virginia town of Delorme. He made good on his own and ended up, according to Shnayerson, adopting his mother's relentless work ethic and lack of sympathy for those who didn't work as hard.