The Reality of Living with Coal Mines

I am a coal miner’s daughter. Growing up in the heart of Boone County, West Virginia, my life has been laced through with coal. While other children visited zoos or museums for their elementary school field trips, my class went to active coal mines. We donned safety helmets and took tours; we were taught how refining processes worked. We were given stickers and pencils and trinkets emblazoned with coal company logos and pro-coal slogans.

Coal runs though the heart of West Virginians just as thickly as it runs through her mountains. Our entire well-being depends upon it—without the jobs that coal provides to this state, the economy would collapse. Ask any West Virginian, even the most anti-coal citizen, and they will tell you that if coal were taken away tomorrow, West Virginia would fall apart at the seams. The companies know this, too, and exploit it, to the detriment of my friends and family, and my immediate environment.

For while our well-being may be be wrapped up in it, coal takes a heavy toll on its dependents. In some sad cases, children watch their parents slowly lose battles with cancer; I watched my adoptive father lose his ability to walk, while my best friend’s father died of black lung.

Yet even today, as I drive home from work, I pass billboards proclaiming, “YES, COAL,” or “Don’t let the EPA bureaucrats in Washington take our jobs!”

On April 5, 2010, thirty-one miners went into the Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine, a mere fifteen minute drive from my home. Four days later, twenty-nine of them had perished in the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970. One year after the explosion, the Mine Health and Safety Administration released a report stating that Massey Energy had failed to meet even the most basic safety regulations as outlined in the Mine Act of 1977.

The report also alleged that Massey Energy threatened to fire miners who refused to work in areas that the miners knew didn’t meet basic safety regulations, such as areas that were lacking in oxygen.

In 1998, Elk Run Mining Company, a subsidiary of—you guessed it—Massey Energy, opened a preparation facility a scant 700 feet from the nearest resident of Sylvester, West Virginia, only ten minutes from my home. In the process of opening the facility, they also removed a mountain bluff that had previously offered the citizens some protection from the company’s other facilities. The plant was in operation 24/7 with absolutely no breaks. Within a month, the entire town was covered in coal dust. It poisoned the ground, ruined the gardens, and piled up on porches. For two years, calls to the DEP were ignored.

Eventually, an inspector at the DEP agreed to hold a hearing and Elk Run pleaded good faith, stating that they had planted pine trees (which would take years to grow tall enough to offer any kind of relief), installed a screen designed to filter the dust out of the air before it reached the town (but which did little to actually catch the coal dust), and installed a sprinkling system which could have provided relief, but locals reported that it was only turned on when DEP inspectors were in the area.

But it was still to get much worse. Because of the fine consistency of the dust, not only did it cover the outside of homes and personal property such as cars, but it soon began actually infiltrating local homes. Residents took video evidence for proof and began petitioning the Legislature to enact new laws.

“We were told there were already Laws that protected the people, yet coal companies are not made to abide by them, especially Massey Energy. At this time, we decided to expose Elk Run Mining and Massey Energy for what they truly were, a corporation that harasses and destroys for their own personal greed.”

Said one resident.

I would like every person reading this to take a moment to imagine what it was like to breathe in the town of Sylvester at that time. Even indoors, with every inhalation, locals’ lungs were filling with coal dust, which is the same thing that killed my best friend’s father—black lung.

And then there is mountain top removal, which is a kind of surface mining that is exactly what it sounds like—the peak or summit of a mountain is removed and flattened to allow easier access to coal seams underneath. This is a form of mining that is controversial even amongst the most die-hard coal supporters here in West Virginia because of how detrimental it can be. When companies engage in mountain top removal mining, not only is part of West Virginia’s heritage destroyed (West Virginia is the Mountain State after all), but the environment is destroyed as well, taking with it the health and safety of both local wildlife and the state’s citizens.

The EPA estimates that by 2012, at least 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forests will have been destroyed for mountain top removal mining. Anyone who has ever visited West Virginia will tell you how beautiful our mountains and our forests are, but what the casual visitor won’t be able to tell you is about just how many different types of fauna live there. Our wildlife population is diverse and often overcrowded, and removing still more of their habitat is hazardous, and most common citizens who have little to no knowledge of wildlife biology can tell you that just from observing the environment around them.

So why does West Virginia rely so heavily on coal? Why does it so fiercely support an industry that mistreats its employees, that destroys the environment, and that costs lives every year? The answer is actually quite simple, and it’s something that anti-coal groups so often forget when they come in from other states to protest.

Education.

As I said, West Virginian citizens are inundated with coal from the time they are quite young. We are taken on field trips to mines, we are taught to revere miners, and, in the case of male students, encouraged to go into the trade. I cannot tell you how many times I watched my high school teachers pass students who hadn’t learned the required knowledge because, “they won’t need to know that in the mines, anyway.” My own step-father is functionally illiterate, but what’s it matter? He can operate mining machinery. Girls are expected to marry a coal miner, so who cares if they are prepared for college?

This mindset is driven into us from the time we’re born until the time we leave sheltered high school halls. Indeed, I watched as more than 80% of the men in my graduating class became coal miners and more than 90% of the women either didn’t attend college at all or dropped out because they were married and/or pregnant at nineteen (and thus “didn’t need an education now that they had a man to take care of them”). I watched as yet another round of coal miner’s daughters were born and knew with a heavy heart that they would be brought up the same way that I was: that coal was to be revered, that Massey Energy’s hold on this state was to be accepted as a part of life, and that the “EPA bureaucrats” were to be hated for trying to take our livelihood away from us.

Anti-coal Protesters come here from other parts of the country, trying to shut down the mines. They mean well. They genuinely do. But as we’ve seen with the Deathly Hallows Campaign, the Horcruxes of our world are often interconnected and part of a larger problem. Even on the rare times when the protesters try to bring in jobs that produce clean energy—solar or wind, for instance—they forget that our citizens are not trained to do those jobs, which frequently require a higher education level than most West Virginia citizens will ever achieve. What happens when those jobs are brought in is that workers are brought in, too, and coal miners and their families start to resent clean energy even more.

Is coal bad for the environment and human beings? Yes. Very few people around here will argue that point, even while proudly slapping “FRIEND OF COAL” stickers onto their cars. But clean energy requires education—an education that West Virginia citizens are discouraged from getting at a very young age. If things are ever going to change, we have to stop looking at just the tip of the iceberg and look at the much larger problem. There will always be resistance when outsiders come in and protest our mines without offering any real solution. To change this attitude, we must change the way West Virginia children are conditioned. We must stop inundating them with pro-coal propaganda. We must start encouraging them to reach their full potential and to pursue higher education. We must institute training programs to teach workforce-age citizens the skills they will need in order to actually seek employment at the new, clean-energy plants. At the heart of this issue is the problem of mindset—that West Virginians have coal running through their veins and anything else is a threat.

Luckily, there are a growing number of Appalachian citizens who are tired of watching our loved ones die, who are sick of inhaling coal dust with every breath. We are in the unique position of having grown up as coal miners’ daughters and sons, who have seen exactly what coal companies are capable of in an extremely intimate and painful fashion. Change can happen, for the safety of both humanity and the environment, but it has to come from within. It has to start at the root of the problem and grow forth. It won’t happen until someone thinks to change the way the children of coal are educated, until someone tells them that they can be more than just another cog in an industry that is slowly killing our planet and its inhabitants.

It has to start, in short, with someone imagining better.

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2 Comments

  1. hippiefemme

    June 29, 2011 at 9:38 pm
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    I think the recent March on Blair Mountain, which garnered national media attention, was an incredible show of solidarity that Appalachians will no longer tolerate the abhorrent practices that destroy our mountains and our people. Great post!

  2. susan arbogast

    December 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm
    Permalink

    As a mother of two children, being raised in southern WV I thank you for this article.

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