MINGO COUNTY, WV—Southern West Virginia is dying. Its mountains are collapsing into themselves. They’ve been mined underground, empty caverns are filled with coal sludge, and had their tops blown off and swept into the valleys below to extract the upper seams of coal.
Below, the mountain people are being forced from their homes. Their drinking water smells like sulfur and is laden with toxic chemicals; bathing, cooking and drinking with this well water is to be avoided whenever possible. Their land and homes are being washed away in floods due to irresponsible mining. Schools are closing. Cancers and kidney, liver and respiratory problems have ravaged the communities that sit below the mountains being mined.
Statewide, sixteen mine workers have been killed so far this year. Gov. Joe Manchin III spoke to the press after three mining accidents in the state on Feb. 1 resulted in two deaths and one injury. He called for a statewide “safety stand down.”
Production was to be halted and safety inspections would start immediately, Manchin promised. “We’re not going to produce another lump of coal – we are going to correct the safety conditions,” he said. To many, the “safety stand down” rings hollow; promises have been made before.
West Virginia produces 150 million tons of coal a year, second only to Wyoming, according to the West Virginia Coal Association (WVCA). Seventy percent comes from underground mining, while the rest comes from surface mining, which includes strip-mining, long-wall mining and mountaintop removal.
One-third of West Virginia’s coal is shipped to 28 different countries around the world, according to Bill Raney, president of the WVCA, a powerful industry lobby. The human costs of coal production are profound. The waste from coal mining and processing has poisoned the air and the ground water. I saw many people who had sores on their bodies from bathing in the poisoned water; those who can afford to buy all their drinking and cooking water, but most cannot. I felt like I was in a developing country brushing my teeth with bottled water.
Have you ever turned on your tap and had the water come out black? I witnessed this several times in the last two weeks. Water from every tap in Kenneth Stroud’s home in Mingo County came out rust colored, laced with a gritty oily substance some alleged to be diesel fuel. When the coal company has been pumping toxic sludge into your mountains for 30 years, this is what can happen.
The coal industry, which employs more than 40,000 West Virginians, is embedded within the state’s governing bodies and regulatory agencies. Government from county to state is mired in corruption and graft, I was told again and again during my latest two-week visit to the mountain state. Residents say the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the federal EPA are a joke.
They complain that public hearings for mining permits are for show. The permit hearing is a routine where “a button on a recording device is pressed and a ‘thank you very much, we’ll take your words [of protest] back with us’ is the panel’s standard response.
Citizens from Boone, Raleigh and Mingo Counties told me how they go to these hearings and pour their hearts out, asking for help, for the law to be enforced. They tell state officials how the air they breathe, the water they drink and the land they live on is making them sick and killing many, but to no avail. State police are often present at the more controversial hearings, like those for expansion of the mine behind Marsh Fork Elementary in Sundial, Raleigh County.
In his State of the Union Address, President Bush called for Americans to end their dependence on oil, pointing to coal to pick up some of the slack. The BBC reported that in order to do this, West Virginia will have to increase its current coal production by 50 percent.
What will this do to southern West Virginia? How can she endure more? I felt a visceral tension in the air, conflict is palpable. The mountain people, the ones whose families have lived here for seven, eight, even nine generations, are suffering badly. They are being sacrificed for the coal industry and our nation’s seemingly insatiable appetite for power.
I spent two weeks talking to people in the towns of Sylvester, Bob White, Rawl and Rock Creek. I heard so many stories, of sickness and death, and wholesale destruction of communities. I left West Virginia with tears of sadness and rage for the crimes being committed against the mountain people.