Ed Wiley is one determined man.
On August 2nd, he embarked on a 455 mile walk from Charleston, WV to Washington D.C. to dramatize concerns about the safety of a school located next to a major coal mine.
The school, Marsh Fork Elementary, is about 400 yards from a 2.8 billion gallon coal slurry dam, which Wiley says is prone to leaks and safety violations. Even closer is a coal processing plant and silo for loading coal into railroad cars. On windy days, dust flys off of the trees surrounding the school.
“The kids at Marsh Fork don’t have a future,” Wiley said at a rally before he left on his march. “They don’t have a tomorrow.”
Wiley first suspected problems at Marsh Fork after he was called by the school nurse three days in a row to pick up his granddaughter. Wiley asked his granddaughter what was wrong and with tears in her eyes, she said: “Grandpa, those coal mines are making us kids sick.”
Coal slurry is toxic sludge left over from coal processing and is a byproduct of mountaintop removal mining. Wiley has worked at the very site that now endangers his family and the surrounding community. The slurry dam is made of slate, with dirt compacted on top of it. According to environmental groups such as the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), the Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), the dam is a hazard to the children.
A Marshall University professor tested the air inside the school and determined that coal dust was present and that children did face health hazards from breathing the air inside the school.
In response to this Wiley and other local residents founded Pennies of Promise. The group will try to raise the $5 million necessary to build a new school away from the health hazards. Wiley declared “We all know that black lung killed our fathers, and their fathers. These kids need to be taken out of there.”
Wiley’s ire was also raised at Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, who has recently put a sign on the school that maintains their partnership with the community and education.
“I’m sure Don Blankenship knows about this situation,” Wiley said. “He is worried [more] about his silo” than the kids.
“He doesn’t want to help,” Wiley said. “If he did he could take some of that $8 million bonus he gets every year and put it into this. He could give these kids one trainload of coal to help pay for this school.”
According to Bo Webb, the situation in Marsh Fork is critical. “This is a symptom of what is really wrong in Appalachia, the strip mining, mountaintop removal, the chemical plants in our communities. It is sick, and the kids at Marsh Fork ARE sick.”
“We have a seventeen year old girl who died from ovarian cancer who went there, we have another fighting it,” Webb said. “Three teachers who worked there have died.”
State government has laid low throughout the fight. In July, 2005, Wiley sat on the steps of the capitol in Charleston until the governor spoke with him.
“The fact that Mr. Wiley was here, and that everyone was here indicates that this is a priority for the governor,” said Carte Goodwin, general counsel to Gov. Manchin.
Wiley wasn’t buying it, bellowing from the steps of the capitol on the morning of August 2nd,
“The governor is adding on to his mansion, It’s $1,100 for one faucet. He is putting gambling tables in the mansion. This is wrong. He took a sworn oath to protect the children and people of West Virginia but he is not doing that.”
As the simmering heat wave gripping most of the mid-Atlantic, Wiley was walking 10 to 12 miles a day, saying he was hoping to reach the District of Columbia by September 12th -- 40 days from his departure.
At the send-off rally, Wiley gave the impression of a stronly determined man. As everyone elses sipped bottled water, the man himself had no use for it. As soon as his press release was done he pumped his fist in the air and was off. In ten minutes he had already covered a considerable distance from the capitol.
Once in Washington, Wiley hopes to speak to senators and in particular Robert Byrd (D-WV). “This is in his home town. I believe he is a true Appalachian, if he helps these kids it wont be about politics. It will be because deep down in his heart he is a true Appalachian.” Wiley said.