Since he began reporting full-time, in 1991, Ken Ward Jr. has embodied the credo of Ned Chilton III, The Charleston Gazette’s late publisher, that the “hallmark of crusading journalism is sustained outrage.” In his twenty years covering the coal business in Appalachia, the forty-four-year-old Ward has exposed regulatory and enforcement breakdowns, as well as the corruption of corporations and individuals. In person he can be quiet, even shy, but his reporting is fierce and his sense of injustice unwavering. His work has been cited by everyone from Andrew Revkin at The New York Times to The Washington Post, PBS, and NPR. He is a three-time winner of the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting. He also has received the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, an Investigative Reporters and Editors medal, and an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship. In 2009, he launched Coal Tattoo, a blog on the Gazette’s website that takes its name from a Billy Ed Wheeler song. Coal Tattoo, driven by Ward’s smart, data-driven coverage, quickly became a must-read for reporters who want to understand the coal industry in the United States. CJR’s
Brent Cunningham interviewed Ward in Charleston earlier this year.
Maybe fifteen years ago, I drove up Cabin Creek hollow. This is twenty miles from the capital in Charleston, and one of the poorest areas in Kanawha County. It was Earth Day, I think, and there was some coal company-sponsored event where they were going to plant some trees. This is where the big mine at Kayford Mountain is. You’ve seen photos of Kayford Mountain, showing the effects of mountaintop removal, on the front of The New York Times and any number of places. I’m driving up there and there are kids playing along the side the road, by open sewers, because at the time they didn’t have city water and sewer service. I did a calculation—I can’t remember the numbers now but I put it in a story at the time—of how much coal is hauled out of that particular hollow every year. It was like a billion dollars. I mean, who would stand up and say that’s okay? Would the president of the company that’s mining that coal really say it was okay that he was pulling a billion dollars’ worth of coal out of there and the kids who live there are playing in open sewers? I don’t think so. But yet, if it’s kind of hidden away and the story isn’t told, then it makes it okay.