In ‘Desperate,’ a Reporter Dives Deep Into Dirty Water

The story of a yearslong lawsuit in West Virginia, recounted in Kris Maher’s “Desperate,” has some direct echoes of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., but it’s also a tale about the history of coal mining and Appalachia. Residents in Mingo County complained that waste from a coal plant run by a subsidiary of Massey Energy, the biggest coal company in the state, had been leaking into the ground and contaminating their drinking water, leading to a host of health problems. In “Desperate,” Maher writes about the local population’s fight, brought to court in 2004, and about two of the adversaries in it: an environmental lawyer and Massey’s chief executive. Below, Maher talks about quickly recognizing the story’s many dramatic elements, avoiding stereotypes, the Hatfield-McCoy feud and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I was reporting for The Wall Street Journal in 2010 from Pittsburgh, also reporting on environmental issues in West Virginia. I was reporting on Massey Energy because its Upper Big Branch mine had just exploded; 29 miners had been killed in the worst mining accident in the United States in 40 years.

At the end of one phone call, a source said, “You should check out this lawsuit in Mingo County.” He mentioned Kevin Thompson, an environmental lawyer, so I drove down and found Thompson working out of a hotel in three connected rooms that were wood-paneled. Very low-budget operation, and he was suing this billion-dollar coal company run by Don Blankenship, a controversial figure.

The entire story gelled all at once for me: people’s water being gray and brown and making people sick for years and stinking up their homes. The juxtaposition of Thompson and Blankenship: Thompson, this brilliant, incredibly hard-working attorney who poured his soul — and his finances — into this case, risked his marriage and his health. Blankenship chose to live in Mingo County, where he’d grown up poor with a single mother. He worked out of a very small office right off the highway. So the opportunity to actually spend time with him and not just repeat what had already been said about him in the media was also incredibly interesting to me. And the stakes of the case were incredibly high for the people who had been living and suffering with bad water for years.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

Coming from daily news reporting, writing features, this was just an entirely different animal. I wanted to tell the stories of the residents, everything they’d endured; Thompson’s story; Blankenship’s story. I also wanted to talk about Massey Energy as a company, how it had developed and changed under Blankenship’s management. There was an awful lot to weave together in a unified narrative. My initial draft was probably twice as long as the final one. It took cutting and cutting from this original block of material I had. This was a real learning process for me.

Kris Maher, the author of “Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia.”

One thing that did surprise me in the reporting was that I got a clearer sense of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Like many people, I only had a surface understanding and had encountered it in really brief ways. I discovered this was as much an economic story as anything else, very much tied to the coming of the railroad in 1892 and the increase in land price and how local merchants and outside investors had been trying to buy up property. It really shifted my understanding of Appalachia. My hope is that the reader will have a fuller sense of what it might have been like to live in this place in different time periods and the pressures that have often been on these people from outside economic interests, because they recur. That’s what makes it an American story — the primary story is this water contamination lawsuit, but in the background my hope was that readers could really see the arc of this place.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I had some narratives in mind when I started reporting and outlining the book: Jonathan Harr’s “A Civil Action,” the movie “Erin Brockovich.” I quickly saw they were not going to be useful as templates. There were just so many aspects that were unique to this story — the history of coal mining, of violence in this area. So the outline I had in my mind quickly disappeared.

I do think initially I saw this as a simpler story of a lawyer fighting on behalf of people against a corporation that had probably taken shortcuts and caused problems and a lot of suffering for these communities. But right from the start, I didn’t want to paint a black-and-white picture. I didn’t want to repeat any stereotypes. So I did a lot of research about the area. I wrote a lot more about the history, and I just couldn’t make it work in the narrative. It was too much time away from the primary story.

What creative person (not a writer) has influenced you and your work?

When I lived in New York, I studied tai chi with C. K. Chu, who had a studio in Times Square. It was a refuge for me, literally just a few steps from all the noise and traffic. He taught weapons forms and fighting and meditation, the gamut of tai chi skills. He taught a way of defending against much stronger opponents by sticking to them and redirecting their force against themselves. He used to always say, “Four ounces deflect a thousand pounds.” This is exactly the position Thompson was in, fighting Massey and its corporate defense firm, Jackson Kelly. He would have appreciated Thompson’s struggle, and the book would have appealed to his sense of justice. He was an inspiring figure to me, and he always celebrated his students, whether it was art or writing or music. He’s one of the people I wish I could have shown the book to.

Persuade someone to read “Desperate” in 50 words or fewer.

People in Appalachia don’t need an elegy to be written for them. As I hope this book shows through the example of people living in Mingo County, they simply need the things, including safe drinking water, that people everywhere else expect.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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