The annual Weekend in Wise County event, hosted by the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, is more than an opportunity for people to witness mountaintop removal coal mining and what it leaves behind for the people of Appalachia. It is an opportunity to meet an amazing community trying to raise their families in an environment where the land and water are under attack from the very industry that claims to sustain them.
Coal is a fact of life in southwestern Virginia and it has been for more than a century. The problem now is that the industry is taking far more than they are giving back. The coal industry has found a cheaper way to mine coal: use giant machinery, employ fewer miners and leave behind more problems.
The whole issue – the past, present, and future of coal – was presented in an intricate piece of art from the Beehive Collective. The artists collected people’s stories from all over Appalachia to capture this struggle. Weekend in Wise is just one of many events where the artists present the “True Cost of Coal” and tell the story behind the work.
The presenters also broke down the coal problem into more specific areas of concern, including water quality, human health impacts, impacts on biodiversity and more. One especially well-attended presentation discussed the Coalfields Expressway. A proposed 50-mile mountaintop removal mine through southwest Virginia that is being justified to local residents as an economic development project. In reality, it is just a way to access more coal and get it out faster.
Throughout these presentations, two volunteers drove carload after carload up the switchbacks of Black Mountain on the Virginia – Kentucky border to see a mountaintop removal mine site. Our tour guides – life-long residents of the area – would have rather shown us the beauty of Appalachian forests in mid-October, but instead they could only show us where a mountain once stood.
In its place was a landscape devoid of vegetation. Where there were once steep ridges and deep hollows with flowing streams, there were now level plateaus of rock and dirt with ditches carrying the tainted water into local drinking supply. It is a landscape that will never again look like Appalachia.
For those seeing it for the first time, it was jaw-dropping. For all of us, it was heartbreaking.
However, what hit home to a lot of us later was that just below all that blatant destruction of the mountains were the towns and the people. Four residents of the area spoke of the constant traffic of coal trucks and the black dust that coats everything. It is a battle just to preserve something as sacred as family graveyards, yet these people don’t want to leave (or are unable to because their homes have lost value).
This is their home and we must continue to do everything we can to help them stop mountaintop removal.