Razing Appalachia

First they dug out the land. Then they strip mined it. Now Big Coal is leveling the mountains themselves–and tearing communities apart.

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“Hear that quiet?” Larry Gibson asks as he climbs through the highland cemetery where nearly 300 of his kin lie buried. “You know they’re about to set off a shot when they shut down the machines.” Gibson, a 53-year-old retired maintenance worker and evangelist of the environmental cause, hunkers down with some visitors to wait for the blast.

Gibson knows the routine by heart. After all, the Princess Beverly Coal Company has been blowing up the hills around his family’s 50-acre “homeplace” in West Virginia for more than a decade. When the demolition team is ready down below, the “Ukes” — heavy shovel trucks — back away from a line of high explosives drilled into solid rock. Then the warning horn sounds: two minutes.

The graveyard sits atop Kayford Mountain, a modest, leafy peak that sticks out of the shattered landscape like a fat, green thumb. The view from the edge of the cemetery looks more like the Tunisian outback than a West Virginia mountain range: The ground drops 300 or 400 feet into a dust bowl of raw coal and rubble, crosscut by dirt tracks. In the distance, what used to be forested ridges now resemble flat-topped buttes crusted over with rough grass and a few stunted trees.

West Virginia has been mined since the mid-18th century, but nobody has seen annihilation like this before. In the past 20 years, environmentalists claim, 500 square miles of the state have been stripped and gutted for their coal. In the most apocalyptic form of strip mining, called mountaintop removal, whole peaks are razed to extract layers of relatively clean-burning low-sulfur coal, while the excess rock and earth “overburden” is dumped into the valleys. Hundreds of miles of streams have been buried under these “valley fills,” and dozens of mountains have been flattened into synthetic prairies.

Now, an environmental group called the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and seven coalfield residents are taking state and federal regulators to court for the first time, claiming not only that mountaintop removal devastates the environment, but that existing laws designed to mitigate the damage are not being enforced. Coal companies and their proxies defend the practice as necessary for the economy, and assert that there is no proof it permanently damages the environment. Since last year, both sides have been presenting their cases in a federal court. What’s at stake is the future of surface coal mining in West Virginia, the economies of several counties, the way of life of thousands of people, and, environmentalists contend, the ecological health of the northern Appalachian watershed.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, most of Kayford Mountain is destined to be strip-mined one way or another. But Larry Gibson won’t let the coal companies take it all. He represents the large extended clan that owns that 50-acre parcel atop Kayford, the remnant of a mountaintop farm dating back to the 18th century. It’s one of the rare private holdings in West Virginia’s southern highlands, where most land is owned by corporations and leased to coal companies. Millions of dollars in coal lie beneath the picnic ground and vacation cabins, but the family trust won’t sell.

“The man from the coal company told me, ‘We haven’t seen anything we can’t buy,'” Gibson recalls. “I said, ‘You’re not buying this land.’ If we sell, we sell our heritage. We have no past after that. Where can we show our family where their roots are?”

As we watch, a huge explosion wallops a coal-streaked bench below the cemetery, flinging up plumes of yellow dust and sending cascades of dirt and shale overburden into the valley. The hillside shudders with the shock wave. “That warn’t nothing,” observes Gibson’s cousin, Carl “Red” Fraker, a 70-year-old retired miner who lives in a half-deserted village along Cabin Creek, below Kayford. “The big ones roll the ground like an earthquake.” Fraker was born on Kayford Mountain, and he intends to be buried here some day.

But most of his friends and neighbors have moved on. Aside from the environmental damage caused by mountaintop removal, the practice is killing a way of life in West Virginia’s hollows. Explosions shower dust and rocks down on people who live below the mountaintop mines. The foundations of their houses crack and their wells dry up. Whole towns are disappearing as people sell their homes and move away.

Machines do almost all the work in these modern mines; the coal miners and their communities are now an inconvenience. Thousands of people once lived in simple wood-frame houses along Cabin Creek. Now the road that follows the streambed is lined with ghost towns with names like Red Warrior and Acme and White Row, casualties of the conversion from underground mining to strip mining and now mountaintop removal. After the shops and movie theaters were shuttered and shacks were emptied, the bulldozers came. All that remains now are worn patches in the mountainside, and a few stubborn clusters of daffodils planted long ago in now-vanished gardens.

Up above, when the dust clouds settle after the latest blast, the Ukes start chugging up the hill to scrape out the exposed coal. Red Fraker takes another look out at the black wasteland below. “I want to ask, what’s gonna happen to West Virginia when all the coal’s gone?” he says. “Ain’t no timber on it. No dirt left. Nothin’. What’s it gonna be?”

That was precisely the question members of Congress were asking when they passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, SMCRA (familiarly known as smack-ra), back in 1977. The gist of the law is this: If you mine it, you have to restore the land to the same or better condition than it was in before you got there. The law also provides detailed regulations designed to reduce the environmental impact of such destructive mining. According to SMCRA, strip mines, including mountaintop mines, cannot be allowed within 100 feet of active streams unless it can be shown that the streams won’t be damaged. The law further requires “contemporaneous reclamation” — meaning that soil replacement and reseeding must occur soon after the coal is removed. The land must be returned to its “approximate original contour,” or AOC. The permit holder can be granted a variance from the AOC rule only after submitting a detailed plan for post-mining flatland development, such as a school, airport, or shopping center that would benefit nearby communities.

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is charged with enforcing SMCRA, with the oversight of the federal Office of Surface Mining. Unfortunately, there has been very little regulation by the DEP, whose ranks are filled with former coal-industry employees, and even less supervision from the weak and understaffed federal agency.

When SMCRA was written, mountaintop removal was still an unusual practice. It became more prevalent in the 1980s, when 20-story-tall, rock-eating machines called draglines were brought in to make the technique profitable. Ironically, it was stricter environmental laws that increased the demand for West Virginia’s low-sulfur coal. More than 80 percent of America’s coal is consumed by coal-burning electric power plants, which in turn provide the nation with 56 percent of its electricity. Following passage of 1990’s Clean Air Act, power plants were forced to reduce the sulfur content of smokestack emissions, which react with the atmosphere to cause acid rain. Some of the purest and hottest-burning coal in the nation is found in thin, multiple seams high in West Virginia’s southern mountains. Rather than mine this coal out of the mountains, industry accountants found, it’s cheaper and faster to take the mountains off the coal.

In recent years, the DEP has kept up with the demand for low-sulfur coal by granting permits for more and bigger surface mines. Since 1995, the agency has approved permits subjecting 27,000 new acres to mountaintop removal. (In contrast, journalist Ken Ward, Jr. discovered while researching a prizewinning series of articles for the Charleston Gazette, the state’s largest and most influential newspaper, fewer than 10,000 acres were permitted during the 1980s.) Anywhere from a tenth to two-thirds of the mining permits issued in West Virginia in 1997 (the number depends on whether you consult state regulators or the Gazette’s Ward) are for mountaintop-removal mines, which account for 16 percent of the state’s coal output. Environmentalists assert that some mountaintop mining areas are now 10 miles wide, and that the largest will eventually gobble up 20,000 acres. But it is not just the size of a given mining area that’s worrisome; nobody has studied what the cumulative impact of so much disruption will be on the environment of northern Appalachia. “It might be a different story if it was a 200-acre plot here, and 500 acres in another county,” says Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “But mountaintop removal is spreading and connecting all through the areas where there are coal reserves.” If permits continue to be approved at the pace set over the past decade, environmentalists say, half the peaks in some southern counties could be lopped off.

Despite assurances from coal companies that the technique is perfectly safe, environmentalists are focused on an array of problems associated with mountaintop removal. They worry about increased acid runoff from these giant gashes, particularly since they estimate that 75 percent of West Virginia’s streams and rivers are already polluted by mining and other industries. They fear the loss of groundwater in the land below flattened mountains that were once laced with springs and aquifers. And even though coal-industry technicians insist that the gargantuan valley fills behave “like sponges” and are actually a form of flood control, other experts remain skeptical. “What you see in a lot of these valley fills has no engineering method to it at all,” says Rick Eades, a hydrogeologist who used to work in the mining industry and is now an environmental activist. “It’s just dirt and rock being pushed over the side of a hill and filling in vertically several hundred feet.” Although none of the valley fills has failed since they became a part of West Virginia’s landscape 25 years ago, Eades fears a disastrous flood within the next 25. “Nature will cut those valley fills right out of there, given time. And there’s no way that the mountains can heal in a way that will resemble the original ability of the land to hold back the water during heavy rains, hold back sediments, and retain groundwater.” Such concerns led two West Virginia conservation groups to put the DEP on notice in January of this year of their intent to sue the agency for not assessing the “cumulative hydrological impacts” of mountaintop removal during the permitting process.

Still more problems exist. “Mountaintop removal destroys the beauty of the state, which is somewhat intangible,” says William Maxey, West Virginia’s former chief forester. “More tangible is the fact that it deforests the state.” Maxey says that, as of 1997, 300,000 acres of hardwood forest had been destroyed by mountaintop removal. He characterizes the mining industry’s preferred reforestation methods as “bogus,” saying they are “totally superficial and will not work.” After Maxey failed to convince the DEP to require adequate reforestation of mountaintop mines, he resigned from his job in disgust.

King coal rules west virginia like a petulant monarch, one used to getting its way. Coal production accounts for 13 percent of West Virginia’s gross state product, commands an annual payroll of $900 million, and provides more than a third of the state’s business-tax revenues. King Coal also finds campaign contributions a good investment, and is famously generous with them. For instance, Gov. Cecil Underwood, a former coal executive, is the recent beneficiary of $250,000 in campaign donations from coal companies. (An additional quarter-million was contributed to cover the cost of his inauguration party.) It was Underwood who pushed a bill through the state legislature last year to make mountaintop-removal mining even easier and more profitable. It allowed companies to obliterate up to 480 acres of the drainage above any stream (up from 250 acres) before paying mitigation costs to the state — of $200,000 per buried acre.

But the blatant coal-industry giveaway backfired — leading to the bill’s repeal — when it roused public interest, even outrage. City people started paying more attention to what was going on out of sight, up in the remote coalfields. A 1998 opinion poll showed that 53 percent of West Virginians opposed mountaintop removal, versus 29 percent in favor.

At the same time that Underwood was lobbying for the pro-industry bill in March 1998, the Charleston Gazette was employing the Freedom of Information Act to obtain 81 mining permits issued by the DEP, which it then reviewed against federal laws such as SMCRA and the Clean Water Act. The investigation revealed some startling facts: The DEP didn’t keep complete records of how many permits it issued, so there was no way to track the cumulative effects of mining. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers routinely gave general “nationwide” permits for valley fills that should have required more rigorous individual permits. And in almost all cases, mountaintop-removal AOC variances were issued without post-mining development plans. In those cases when plans were submitted, most of them were for “timberland” or “wildlife habitat” — uses not recognized by SMCRA.

The Office of Surface Mining conducted its own investigation, which essentially confirmed the newspaper’s findings. In other words, for 20 years the DEP had been stretching the law to please the coal companies, and the U.S. government had been letting them get away with it.

In response to an increasing public outcry over mountaintop removal, Gov. Underwood appointed a task force to investigate the issue. It came up with recommendations for more studies and increased vigilance by the regulators. But old hands at this game don’t believe coal companies can be regulated. Ken Hechler, West Virginia’s 84-year-old secretary of state, is a longtime nemesis of the coal industry. As a West Virginia congressman from 1959 to 1977, Hechler tried to abolish strip mining altogether.

“I still feel that it is impossible to have either strip mining or mountaintop removal and have adequate reclamation, which I characterize as putting lipstick on a corpse,” he says. He recently appeared at an environmental rally at the capital and sang a song, to the tune of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It began: “Almost level, West Virginia/Scalped-off mountains, dumped into our rivers.”

Meanwhile, Arch Coal, the country’s second-largest coal company, was trying to push through a 3,100-acre mountaintop-removal permit to expand its giant Dal-Tex mine in Logan County. It would be the largest permit ever granted — amounting to about five square miles of what the DEP calls “total extraction.” The Dal-Tex mine had already filled in dozens of hollows on the west side of the Spruce Fork River along state Highway 17. All but 40 of the 200 families that once lived in the hamlet of Blair had already moved away. That was when James Weekley, a 58-year-old grandfather and former miner, began to fear that Arch Coal wanted the rest — including the headwaters of Pigeonroost Branch, in the leafy hollow where he and his family have lived for generations. In July 1998, Weekley and nine other coalfield residents joined with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy to sue the Army Corps and the DEP for ignoring SMCRA, the Clean Water Act, and other laws. (Three of the original plaintiffs have since dropped out.) Although no coal companies were specifically sued, the purpose of the lawsuit was to make sure the mines comply with the law. Pro-coal letter writers to West Virginia newspapers labeled Weekley and the other plaintiffs environmental radicals. “I’m not an environmentalist — I’m a citizen!” says Weekley. “I was born in this hollow and I’m gonna die here. They’ll have to bulldoze me out before I go.”

Last December, the plaintiffs decided to settle part of the case against the federal government. They agreed that the Army Corps, in conjunction with other federal and state agencies, would conduct a two-year environmental impact study to assess and deal with the cumulative damage caused by mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Meanwhile, new permits, and ones already in the pipeline, would be subjected to closer scrutiny to ensure their compliance with existing regulations and standards. But after Arch Coal, responding to pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that was unrelated to the lawsuit, made significant changes in its permit application — including reducing the lifetime of the Dal-Tex expansion mine from 12 to five years and scaling back its proposed valley fills — the federal defendants argued that the Dal-Tex permit should be exempted from new, stricter scrutiny, and that mining should be allowed to begin.

But Weekley and the other plaintiffs balked at exempting the Dal-Tex mine. They asked U.S. District Chief Judge Charles Haden for a preliminary injunction to delay the permit until the rest of the lawsuit could be resolved in a trial scheduled for this July.

To the astonishment of almost everyone, the conservative Republican judge — who had visited Pigeonroost Hollow and flown over the coalfields — granted the preliminary injunction. In doing so, he cited the “imminent and irreversible” harm that would be done to the Weekleys, and to the stream flowing through Pigeonroost Hollow, if the mining were to proceed, and distinguished it from the “purely temporary economic harms” that Arch would endure from the delay in its operations. The judge then noted that the other legal questions the plaintiffs had raised regarding the conduct of mountaintop removal would be addressed in the future trial. Meanwhile, Arch Coal would have to wait for its permit.

The coal company responded to the ruling by laying off 30 miners at its Dal-Tex mine, and promising to shut down its operation and put 300 more employees out of work by summer. The loss of jobs and tax revenues would poleax the economy of Logan County, one of the poorest counties in a poor state. Less money would be available for schools, police — everything would be affected. The president of the Logan County Commission declared, “It’s a war!” and the commission vowed to fight to keep the mine open. Days after the Haden decision, 1,500 miners, along with union and business leaders from Logan County, marched on Charleston to protest.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) found itself in a terrible position. The stark reality of labor in West Virginia is this: At the end of World War II there were more than 100,000 union coal miners in the state. Now, of the fewer than 19,000 who remain, only 40 percent belong to the UMWA. The union’s president, Cecil Roberts, perceived as a moderate on the issue of mountaintop removal, had already come out in favor of protecting communities from the technique’s excesses. But the imminent loss of one of the biggest union mines in the state was more than he could take. Roberts called for observation of April 2, 1999, as a “memorial day” without pay for the nation’s 35,000 union miners to protest the situation in West Virginia. He was hoping that up to 10,000 would attend a rally in Charleston. Perhaps because it was the Easter weekend, only about 500 miners and family members showed up at the Capitol steps.

Roberts, a wiry, bearded, native West Virginian, shouted like a preacher at the modest crowd that day, telling them they’d all been “kicked in the teeth again by the environmental community. We’re fed up and we’re fired up!” Roberts has been busy leading the union in its fight with the Clinton-Gore administration over U.S. support for the Kyoto treaty on global warming, which he fears will put the nation’s coal industry out of business and cost his workers their jobs. He told the crowd, “You can’t say ‘Don’t burn it’ in Washington and ‘Don’t mine it’ in West Virginia and say you’re not trying to take the jobs of every coal miner in the United States. And I’m here to say no, no, and hell no!”

Some in West Virginia have accused Roberts of stirring up an already volatile situation in the coalfields. Roberts responds that he’s been reasonable for the past year, trying to negotiate a solution to the mountaintop-removal problem. “We were working to find a compromise for workers to keep their jobs and at the same time protect the environment. I believe you can do both,” he told Mother Jones.“We argued that we shouldn’t eliminate mountaintop mining at that moment. It wasn’t fair to the workers, wasn’t fair quite frankly to the companies that had invested literally millions and millions of dollars in West Virginia.”

Secretary of State Hechler, who has a long history of supporting the UMWA, is disappointed in Roberts’ stance. “Like all wars,” he says, “a war against the mountains creates employment. But you don’t keep fighting just to supply jobs. In any event, we ought to start diversifying our economy early on instead of making such a heavy dependence on coal, which pollutes the streams, pollutes the politics, and is a finite resource.”

The coal hasn’t quite run out yet. In fact, the last two years have set new records for West Virginia coal production, with 182 million tons extracted in 1997 alone. Furthermore, most of the mining jobs eliminated over the past half-century were lost to mechanization of the mines and a conversion to surface mining — not a decline in coal production.

But Hechler is right: The coal will run out some day. And the big lie of Big Coal is that West Virginia depends on mining for its prosperity. Skeptics ask: What prosperity? West Virginia is 49th among the 50 states in household income. And in this very poor state, the poorest counties are the ones with the most coal mines.

“No state has given more to the American Dream and gotten less back from it than West Virginia,” says Norm Steenstra, director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group and a former coal operator himself. “The corrupt political system, the dead streams, the severed mountains, the fraud, the dust, the noise, the air pollution — what for? All to supply the voracious American appetite for cheap electricity.”

It’s a risky business calling up a coal company and saying you’re with Mother Jones.But David Todd, vice president and spokesman for Arch Coal, is a good sport, and he agrees to a tour of the Hobet 21 mine near Madison, West Virginia. The mine is a cousin of the Dal-Tex operation, 40 miles south of here, and a showcase for mountaintop removal.

We climb into a 4Å4 truck to have a look at a section that was mined 20 years ago. In fact, the reclaimed parts of Hobet 21 are quite handsome. There are rolling, grassy hills, stands of small trees here and there, a number of ponds where ducks like to nest. To my eyes, it looks more like western Nebraska than West Virginia. But to Todd, and to the regulators who approved this reclamation, this is a fine example of restoring the approximate original contour of the land. “The hills are smaller but with similar rolls as the original mountains,” says Todd, sweeping his hand across the pastures to the forested bumps on the horizon. “This is just more manicured-looking.” Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (who oversees the Office of Surface Mining) took a similar tour of the Hobet 21 mine in the summer of 1996. Impressed, he announced that the Hobet mine was “a rebuke to those who say, Jobs or the environment. This landscape shouts out: You can have both!” Babbitt also said something that continues to haunt the foes of mountaintop removal: “The landscape has changed. It is a better landscape in many ways, a different landscape — a savanna of forests coming back, of fields.” The local headline read “Landscape improved, Babbitt says.” And Arch Coal helpfully provides copies of the story in its press kit.

Before we wrap up the afternoon tour, Todd wants to get something off his chest about the mountaintop-removal controversy and the Dal-Tex permit problem. “If you detect a level of frustration, sometimes even anger, I don’t deny it,” says Todd, a fair-haired man in a white hard hat. “Because, dammit, we’ve done everything and more that people have asked us to do throughout the years.” He says Arch Coal has bent over backward to get the right permits and keep the mine running, taking a loss of $1 million a month since September 1998 in the process. “All we ask is, tell us what the standard is, how we should comply with the law, the permits we need, and we will do that!” he says, throwing up his hands. “Meantime, shutting us down and costing 300 jobs at Dal-Tex is unconscionable!”

It’s touching to hear a coal executive so concerned about the loss of jobs. In the past year, 900 union miners have been laid off in West Virginia due to reduced domestic demand (after a pair of mild winters) and a general consolidation in the coal industry. Nobody marched on Charleston when those cuts were announced, and no corporate vice presidents expressed their anger and frustration. Most of the coal-mining jobs are moving to the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, where there are no unions, and where seams 75 feet thick lie right below the gentle, rolling surface of the land. Arch Coal recently purchased Atlantic Richfield Company’s giant strip mine there and, a few days after Judge Haden’s decision, began to dismantle one of its 340-ton coal shovel trucks to ship to Wyoming.

Ricky Light of Sharples, West Virginia, used to drive that truck. Light, 32, who has a wife, three young daughters, and payments to make on a new modular home, was one of the first to be laid off at Dal-Tex. He used to make $55,000 a year; now he receives unemployment income of $1,200 a month, though his bills amount to $1,800, not including groceries. He and his wife, Samantha, may be shutting off the phone soon, and are considering moving in with her mother. “We planned our life around 15 more years of mining,” says Light, a slender, dark-haired man in a Nike swoosh cap. “I didn’t believe it’d go this far. I thought they’d get the permits.”

Light says he has a “few good possibilities” for another job. He’s been told he could relocate to Arch’s new mine, near Gillette, Wyoming, but Light doesn’t want to leave his hometown. Like the business leaders in Logan, Ricky Light doesn’t fault Arch Coal or the grim realities of mining for his predicament. He blames the people who brought the lawsuit, some of them his neighbors. “There’s a lot of hard feelings here,” he says. “It’s just getting started. ‘Cause you don’t take things off people’s tables. You don’t mess with people’s livelihoods.”

Pigeonroost Hollow is just a mile or so east of Blair Mountain, which was the site of the biggest union battle in the history of West Virginia. That was in 1921, when a young firebrand named Bill Blizzard — whose great-nephew happens to be UMWA president Cecil Roberts — led 15,000 men on a march to unionize the southern coalfields. Famed organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones herself tried to stop the confrontation, but she couldn’t turn them back. The union men met the sheriff’s private army on the slopes of Blair Mountain. As many as 20 people were killed; nobody knows the exact number. Blizzard ended up in jail. It took another decade and still more blood to organize the West Virginia mines.

Another war is now being fought in the shadow of Blair Mountain. The barriers seem harder to define, and the sons and daughters of those union foot soldiers are dug in on both sides of the line. It’s a battle over jobs and the environment, tradition and change — a fight that is going on here in the coalfields, and out in the redwood forests of California, and in the copper mines of Montana, and overseas where the natural resources are running dry.

There used to be a historical marker at the foot of Blair Mountain describing the great union war. But somebody stole it, and the sign was never replaced. Soon the mountain itself will be gone, consumed by the dragline and converted into an artificial pasture big enough for a hundred future Wal-Marts, although there will be hardly anyone left to shop there. There may not even be a marker to commemorate the battle, or the times when Mother Jones walked up the creeks to organize the coal camps because the coal company owned the roads. The creeks themselves will be buried under tons of dirt and rock, buried like the mountain and the memory of a time when the people of the coalfields and their union knew which side they were on.


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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

Yet, we just came up pretty short on our first big fundraising campaign since Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined forces.

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2) If you’re not ready to donate but you’re interested enough in our work to be reading this, please consider signing up for our free Mother Jones Daily newsletter to get to know us and our reporting better. Maybe once you do, you’ll see it’s something worth supporting.

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