Erin Brockovich meets Dark Waters in this propulsive and heart-wrenching legal drama set in Appalachian coal country, as one determined lawyer confronts a coal industry giant in a battle over clean drinking water for a West Virginia community—from Wall Street Journal reporter Kris Maher.
For two decades, the water in the taps and wells of Mingo County didn’t look, smell, or taste right. Could it be the root of the health problems—from kidney stones to cancer—in this Appalachian community? Environmental lawyer Kevin Thompson certainly thought so.
For seven years, he waged an epic legal battle against Massey Energy, West Virginia’s most powerful coal company, helmed by CEO Don Blankenship. While Massey’s lawyers worked out of a gray glass office tower in Charleston known as “the Death Star,” Thompson set up shop in a ramshackle hotel in the fading coal town of Williamson. Working with fellow lawyers and a crew of young activists, Thompson would eventually uncover the ruthless shortcuts that put the community’s drinking water at risk.
A respected preacher and his brother, retired coal miners, and women whose families had lived in the area’s coal camps for generations, all put their trust in Thompson when they had nowhere else to turn. As he dug deeper into the mystery of the water along a stretch of road where the violence from the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud still echoes, he was pulled into the darkest corners of Mingo County, risking his finances, his marriage, his career, and even his safety.
Bringing to life a rich cast of characters and the legacy of coal mining in an essential yet often misunderstood part of America, Desperate is a masterful work of investigative reporting about greed and denial, a revealing portrait of a town besieged by hardship and heartbreak, and an inspiring account of one tenacious environmental lawyer’s mission to expose the truth and demand justice.
About the Author
Kris Maher has been a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal since 2005, writing about environmental issues, coal mining, labor, regional economics, and other topics. He has reported on the Flint water crisis, PFAS drinking water contamination, and Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. More recently, he wrote about the pandemic’s effect on families coping with remote learning. He covered the trials of Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby, and Don Blankenship and has also written features for the Journal’s front-page “A-hed” column on topics ranging from extreme pogo athletes to the coldest town in the US. He lives in Pittsburgh with his son and daughter. Follow him on Twitter: @Kris_Maher
"[Desperate is] both a case study in exploitation of the little guy and a playbook for confronting it. A rigorous accounting of a remarkably hard-fought battle for clean water."
"A comprehensive account of the seven-year legal battle waged by residents of southern West Virginia against the state's largest coal company... details of Thompson's financial and marriage troubles make his battle to secure a $35 million settlement for his clients seem all the more heroic. Readers will be appalled at how hard these communities had to fight for a modicum of justice."
"Wall Street Journal reporter Maher unearths the secrets of this community and the determination of lawyer Kevin Thompson as he attempts to uncover one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in West Virginia’s history ... Maher’s sharp, detailed prose reads like fiction ... [a] gripping account."
"Kris Maher’s real-life legal thriller about an Appalachian community’s fight for the right to clean drinking water will grip you from start to finish. It’s an astonishing tale that pits a tenacious, environmental lawyer against one America’s most infamous coal companies. Maher uncovers a trail of corporate greed and corruption on a monumental scale."
—Eric Eyre, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Death In Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic
"Desperate is an exhilarating chronicle of what it takes to build a better world. Kris Maher’s brilliant reporting is the fuel behind this propulsive story of brass-tacks Appalachian justice, closely following a troubling case that forces us to face the hardest questions of public health and power. Its call for long-haul environmental accountability will resonate in every community that has been at the mercy of those who never seem to stop taking."
—Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy
"Kris Maher has written a deft, illuminating and often riveting account of a modern-day David and Goliath legal battle, expertly revealing the devastating consequences of regulatory disregard and corporate greed behind our energy policies. Timely as ever, Desperate gives us reasons to believe in the still small possibility of justice--and the unsung heroes fighting to defend our right to a glass of clean drinking water."
—Jeff Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland