September 10, 2012 12:00 PM

Driving through Twilight, W.Va., Maria Gunnoe points to mining equipment on a hilltop less than a mile from town. “Next time they blow the mountain up, that’s the end of Twilight,” she says of the picturesque valley dotted with modest homes and trailers, a lone post office, a steepled church, and a long-closed movie theater rumored to be haunted. “Unless we stop it, and that’s what we’re aiming to do.”

Her plan seems simple: Buy a nine-acre strip of land between the community and a mountain that Patriot Coal, a mining giant with holdings throughout the Appalachian region, has its eye on for a future site. If Patriot purchases the plot and blows the hilltop to uncover coal, says Gunnoe, it would rain dust and boulders down on Twilight (pop. 250), making it uninhabitable. But if Gunnoe can buy the land, she could limit mining access to adjoining hilltops, creating a buffer and, she hopes, save the town.

Hers seems a noble cause, and yet-despite Twilight’s pre-Civil War history-not everyone is sentimental about saving it. Hard times make the prospect of selling property to coal companies ever more attractive, and once that buffer zone is sold, other landowners will likely get offers too, as the company clears the town. Says retired miner Danny Miller, 57: “You could close off the mouth of the hollow and blow the whole thing as far as I care. I’m just waiting to sell.”

The crucial parcel is owned by Phyllis Mooney, whose late husband, Frank, a retired miner, reportedly had wanted to sell it to Gunnoe’s organization, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, for $650,000. A study by a green group estimated that the coal under the land may be worth $2.5 million; Patriot Coal offered the Mooneys $775,000 in 2009, says Gunnoe, far more than OVEC could pay. Mooney, who is a secretary for the miners’ union and who declined to comment, is trying to hold out and respect her husband’s wishes, but so far Gunnoe, 43, has raised only about $30,000. Time is running out: Mooney needs to pay her bills, and fund-raising is far from booming in this town, where even families are divided on the issue. Arvil Richmond, 83, is determined to stay in Twilight, where generations of his family are buried in hillside cemeteries. But his wife, Helen, has doubts. “If it’s going to stay like this, so isolated, I don’t know,” she says. Arvil looks at his wife in alarm. “You’d go?” he asks, his voice shaking. Wordlessly, she indicates that she would.

Like Arvil, Gunnoe has deep roots in the area. Her family has lived in the valley since the early 1800s, and several generations made their living in coal. It’s not mining that she opposes; it’s the current method. She is among the area’s most vocal opponents of mountain-top removal (MTR), a controversial practice that uses dynamite to extract coal with lower labor costs than sending men into a mine. Retired miner Leo Cook, 76, sides with Gunnoe for environmental reasons. “I spent 28 years underground,” he says. “There’s a better way to get coal; they are destroying our mountains.” But even he understands there may not be a choice. “You got the town on the one hand,” he says, “and jobs on the other.”

Still, Gunnoe persists because she has seen what MTR did to neighboring Lindytown. In 2009 a coal company bought most of the houses there and boarded up the church she attended as a child. Within months “everybody left, and the company tore the place down,” says Gunnoe. “Within a year it was like Lindytown never existed.”

Representatives for Patriot Coal would not comment on their plans for Twilight. But “none of the companies wants to impose anything on anyone,” says Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents the industry. “People are free to stay or to go. There are going to be interruptions and inconveniences, as with any sort of industrial activity.” Raney points out that MTR is increasingly used as the U.S. tries to cut dependence on foreign oil. “To say we’ve got to save one place or another doesn’t make sense,” he adds.

Local proponents of MTR argue that leveling the land makes it easier to develop, a claim that some find dubious, as the blasting will drive residents away. “What’s the use of having leveled land to put a shopping mall on?” asks West Virginia state Representative Larry Barker. “There’s nobody around to shop there.”

Despite being branded by some locally as “anticoal,” Gunnoe, a former waitress, refuses to give in. “The people do not have the resources to fight coal companies,” says Gunnoe, who in October will receive the Wallenberg Medal honoring outstanding humanitarianism for earlier efforts to reduce toxic waste in MTR areas. (Previous winners include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.) “This is one of the poorest parts of the country. They’re vulnerable.”

It is a difficult thing to acknowledge. “A lot of people are in denial,” says Melvin Messer, preacher of Twilight’s Star of Bethlehem Freewill Baptist Church. “They don’t want to think you could wake up tomorrow and it would be nonexistent. It’s hard to fathom.”

But Gunnoe says they don’t need to imagine it; what’s left of Lindytown is just down the road. “Miners are now dynamiting within half a mile of Twilight,” she says. And, as if on cue, a series of booms echoes through the hollow.

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