By Matt Combs
June 3, 2019 - It is a quintessential late spring afternoon in America.
Dozens of smiling children of all ages are chasing one another as their siblings play baseball and softball while their parents and relatives make runs to the concession stand for hot dogs and other refreshments.
Residents and family members take in the actions at the Big Coal River Little League fields Sunday afternoon in Pettus. Looming in the background at upper right is one of Contura Energy's mining operations, a company that for the last two years has had plans in the works on taking the Little League property to install a belt line from that site down to another site that sits directly behind the fields. Though residents have known about the plans for some time, they now feel they were misled by Contura into thinking the company would replace their ballfields, which have been a staple in the community for the last 60 years.
Photo by Brad Davis, The Register-Herald
It could be a scene from just about anywhere across the nation, but the two locomotives pulling a long snake line of loaded coal cars just across the drive provides a more specific sense of place.
Just miles away to the north in Whitesville, many shops along Coal River Road are boarded up, while a drive south down the same road through the coalfields west of Beckley takes motorists by rusted coal tipples and conveyor lines.
At the Pettus site of the Big Coal River Little League all seems well. The community gathers, smiling, laughing, watching the next generation grow up.
For Marsha Evans, the day should be a celebration.
The Little League's Queens Day Ceremony held on Sunday marks the end to a long season, with competition among 14 teams and 170 children, with Evans staying busy as the League's treasurer. However, the volunteer, who has participated in the Little League for 12 years, is left praying that it will continue as well as it has in the past.
Big Coal River Little League's Marsha Evans, left, and Roger Clay, present a commemorative gift to umpire Jerry Jarrell, who's been at it for 53 years, during a homecoming ceremony at their complex in Pettus Sunday afternoon.
Photo by Brad Davis, The Register-Herald
That is because three fields of the Big Coal River Little League sit on land which is leased to Contura Energy, a mining company with operations in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, and the mining company has plans for the children's ball fields.
For more than 60 years, the children of northwestern Raleigh County and adjacent areas have played ball on the fields after Bethlehem Steel gave the Little League a 100-year lease on the property for $1; however, that lease included the stipulation that the landowner could terminate that contract with the Little League with a 30-day notice.
According to Evans, the League was notified two years ago that the mining company would be installing a belt line across the ball fields. She said League members were under the impression that the company would work to match the League's facilities on another piece of property somewhere in the area.
More recently, the League learned that the company wanted to move them to a one-field location, six miles into Boone County, which would encroach on another League in northern Boone County and leave many of the ball players farther away from any League whatsoever.
Last week, Evans said the Big Coal River Little League learned that Contura planned to send the League the 30-day notice to vacate the property.
According to the volunteer, the news of a threatened removal went against what the company told the League prior to the start of the spring season, prompting her to contact the governor's office and media outlets about the notice.
"I think they thought we were just going to lay down and not say anything," Evans said. When the news broke, she said she received a call from the company after repeated past attempts to set up a meeting to discuss the future of the fields.
The distance between the company and the League is nothing new, Evans said.
According to the volunteer, in their two years with Contura, which merged with Alpha Natural Resources during that timeframe, its efforts to support the League have been minimal.
Evans said a previous mining interest provided funds to the League each year, provided company groundskeepers for the fields and helped pay for the League's electric bill.
The volunteer said the league approached Contura to purchase three outfield fence advertisements for $75 each after the company dropped other support.
"The last two years they haven't even done that," Evans said. "Last year, they came and replaced three light bulbs for us."
According to Evans, in the League's conversation with the company, the argument always falls upon the issue of money.
She said the company tells the League it would cost $1.2 million to re-route the proposed beltline around the League's fields, and that the company doesn't have enough funds for the re-route.
With the company controlling large acreage in that part of the county, Evans said she initially believed it would just build the community's children a similar facility somewhere nearby. But her confidence has diminished in what the mining interest will do.
"It's the fact that they won't give you anything," Evans said. "It's their word, which could literally mean nothing."
Many of the children who play on the fields are the children and grandchildren of local miners.
"We've supported the coal industry here," Evans said. "We've been behind them all these years."
With the uncertainty of where the community's children will be able to play baseball and softball in the future on her mind, Evans believes that moving to a lesser facility will damage what remaining sense of community the children have about their area, which has been economically ravaged in the past.
"This is about all that we have left," Evans said, pointing out the loss of schools and a football team in nearby Whitesville.
While worried about the future of the League, the volunteer was noticeably excited to see the large group of people who came out to support the children on Sunday, noting that many were associated with the League many years ago.
Looking forward, Evans said the decision made should be about the children — not what solution would provide the biggest profit.
The volunteer said she has spoken to company representatives since the League reached out to political leaders, and the media with the company is allegedly rescinding its 30-day notice to the League to move. She said they have agreed to meet with the League to discuss the best way forward.
"The only thing we're asking is if they move us, that we have what we have here," she said.