Volunteers witness everyday tragedies, extraordinary hope in the coalfields

As our caravan wound northward from our homes in peaceful Boone, North Carolina, through the back roads toward the twisted hollows of southern West Virginia, we were reminded of why we love these mountains. But this wasn’t a sight-seeing trip. We were group of Appalachian Voices volunteers were going to a part of Appalachia that Americans rarely think about, much less think about as a vacation destination.

Driving into the coalfields of West Virginia felt different, as though we had crossed a border more significant than a state line. The rules had changed. We had grown accustomed to thinking of our mountains as a peaceful, safe place, naively assuming they possess a sacred permanence, some majestic immutability. We soon became painfully aware of their vulnerability, left naked in shame where strip mining proved too malignant to be hidden from the road by a thin line of trees. Our ancient, graceful giants had met a reckless, violent foe in King Coal.

The people in these hills suffer this violence too. To think of the destructive force necessary to break a mountain is one thing, but as we crisscrossed this forgotten corner of West Virginia , it became starkly clear that people live right in the middle of this titanic battle. Hearing their stories, we couldn’t believe these things were happening in America.

Our first stop was the town of Rawl where five area residents died the week before. A Mingo County lawsuit alleges that coal slurry has for many years been injected, without permits, into abandoned underground mines that surrounding the community. A witch’s brew of heavy metals — including lead, manganese, and arsenic — started leaching into the water table that fed the community wells, a problem compounded when the strata cracked due to illegal blasting. People started getting really sick, but weren’t being told why. Afraid of getting involved in a lawsuit with the coal companies, many of whom have reputations for vengeful retaliation, the local government, even doctors, turned a blind eye to the residents’ symptoms of toxic exposure, and didn’t treat them.

Kenny Stroud, a Rawl resident who recently appeared with his sons in National Geographic Magazine, wants the world to know what is happening and how he is suffering from environmental violence. Stroud has deterioration of his muscles, soft bones, stomach swelling, gallbladder problems, severe depression. He has the liver of an alcoholic, though he doesn’t drink. Now unemployed, he can’t even afford the medicines he needs. Recently while taking a bath, Stroud’s son started screaming: the tap started running black. Stroud rushed him out, desperately trying to wipe off the sticky black film on his son’s skin, but not before the boy’s eyes started swelling.

Eventually recognizing similar symptoms, residents demanded answers and justice. Rawl residents like Pastor Larry Brown and former sheriff Billy Sammons organized to demand clean water. They began by registering everyone to vote. Though the coal companies have made threats on them for their ‘trouble-making’, they figure that coal is killing them either way. We witnessed the rewards of their courage as they unloaded the first shipments of bottled water, delivered by the state after 12 years of struggle. A water line from a safe source may finally be in the works, although it has been delayed because of the cost to the abandoned mine land fund. Stroud and 350 other residents are also suing Massey Energy to pay for damage to the water supply. They also want an apology and restitution, but, Stroud says “I don’t know what that could be”.

Another Rawl resident, Donetta Blankenship, will be among those traveling to the United Nations with complaints about their treatment as human rights violations.

We also traveled to Island Creek and met members of the Island Creek Watershed Association and other Logan residents. They get nervous whenever it rains, living under the constant threat of their lives washing away in a flood. Strip mining began nearby in 1996. A “100 year flood” struck in 1997, and others hit in 2001 and 2003. It’s not a coincidence. The deforestation and loss of topsoil that come with strip mining have left the community vulnerable to rain waters that have nothing to absorb them.

Things get worse with each flood. “Insurance prices go up and property values go down,” said one resident. Each flood leaves silt and debris which raise the creek bed and the flood plain. Despite promises from the state, the creek running through town has yet to be dredged. Some $2.4 million had been secured for the creek’s restoration, but the association says they can’t track down where the money went.

One member, Walter, took us back to his home, and showed us a video of coal trucks barreling past his home, several each minute. He told us of his struggle to get a mere warning system installed at the coal sludge impoundment above his home in the event it fails.

The next day Kenny King gave us a tour of Blair mountain and the historic labor battle site along its ridge. King is trying to protect the site from the encroaching mountain top removal. By documenting remnants of the battle he hopes the area, along with a buffer, will be set aside for preservation.

As we approached the site, Kenny pointed out dying neighborhoods full of empty lots, where people had been forced out of the areas the company wants to mine. He said he believes that the end goal is to “depopulate (the mountains) so there will be no one to complain or sue.”

Our last stop was the memorial service for Ellery Hatfield and Donald Bragg, miners who died in a belt line fire caused by safety violations in the Massey Energy Co.’s Alma mine earlier this year. With the future of the industry in the balance, the most powerful politicians of West Virginia were in attendance not so much to mourn as to celebrate the “sacred way of life” that is coal mining.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin heaped praise on those in the mining industry for taking risks to supply a nation that “desperately needs it,” providing the energy that makes this country the great military and industrial power it is. “We will continue to mine coal in West Virginia and the world,” he declared, that the deaths of these miners are “not in vain.”

While speaker after speaker stressed the importance of every individual in our democracy, we couldn’t help but think of the victims of the rest of the tragedies we saw in our brief visit. Tragedies that don’t kill instantly might not make headlines, but the crimes against the West Virginians we met were just as real.


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