As the shock of the tragedy in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina begins to fade for some Americans, the horror remains and, for many, their emotions are beginning to turn to anger. After all, it isn’t easy to understand how such an avoidable tragedy could have occurred in America. How could the wealthiest nation in the world have been so unprepared when the potential for a disaster of this magnitude was so obvious? How could the needs of the poor, the elderly and the infirm have been so brutally ignored by government? Who should be held accountable?
Having dodged bullets time and again as hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast over the decades, it was all too easy for government officials to focus on more immediate and politically-driven priorities than the levee-encircled tragedy we knew as New Orleans. What everyone seems to agree about is that the tragedy was magnified by a failure of government either at the local, state or federal level. Based on our experience in the Appalachian region, we suspect the answer to what level of government is responsible is “all of the above.”
The Gulf Coast is not the only place in America where the government is turning a blind eye to looming natural disasters of Biblical proportions. For over a century such colossal failures of government to protect the safety and welfare of the Appalachian people have been routine, and the indifference to the needs of the poor and the infirm are all but institutionalized. In 1972, a dam failed on a coal waste impoundment on Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia, releasing 132 million gallons of polluted black water that rushed down the valley, killing 125 people, leaving thousands homeless, and causing an estimated $50 million in damage.
Thirty years later, the story is much the same. In 2000, 309 million gallons of sludge spilled from an impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky, when the bottom of the reservoir failed, releasing sludge into underground mines that then flowed into local rivers. The resulting spill was larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill (28 times large, in fact) and has been called the worst environmental disaster in the Southeast. In the past twelve months, boulders from mountaintop removal mines have crushed homes in Virginia and Kentucky, resulting in the tragic death of a toddler in southwest Virginia. McDowell County, West Virginia, has been declared a disaster area three times in less than two years as a result of flooding related to mountaintop removal. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Could the Buffalo Creek disaster happen again at any time? An example from Naoma, West Virginia, provides an answer. Outside Naoma, a man-made impoundment (not unlike the levees around New Orleans) holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge looms directly above Marsh Fork Elementary School. There is also a facility owned by Massey Energy that spits out toxic coal dust into the air less than 200 yards from the school, continually coating the school walls and playground equipment in coal soot. Parents and grandparents of children attending Marsh Fork Elementary held repeated protests over the summer to call attention to this huge threat to the lives and health of their children. The response of local government? The parents and grandparents were arrested.
The grandfather of one of the children at Marsh Fork sat on the steps of the state capitol building in Charleston for days until he got a meeting with the Governor. The response of state government? A bogus study that state officials concede didn’t even test the school’s air for coal dust and other toxins. That is, business as usual.
Countless West Virginians, Kentuckians, Virginians, and Tennesseans have called on federal agencies such as the Office of Surface Mining and the Army Corps of Engineers to enforce the laws that would protect their safety from the threats of coal impoundment failures, flooding, coal dust, and flying boulders caused by mountaintop removal coal mining operations. The response of the federal government? To continue giving the big coal companies just about everything they want.
While these many failures of government are shameful and inexcusable, they are no grounds for throwing in the towel and giving up on the political process. America is still a democracy, and people still have the ultimate power. It’s time for people in Appalachia and people across the country to ask some hard questions of government about their priorities and commitment to protecting people. We can learn this much from the disaster in the Gulf – it is up to “we the people” to hold negligent officials and self-interested politicians accountable if we hope to prevent a similar disaster from happening right here in our own backyard.