Front Porch Blog

Marsh Fork Elementary Public Hearing (Take 2)

On Monday July 24th, community members of the Coal River Valley and concerned citizens from all over the mountains sent a resounding message to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that they would do whatever it took to keep a 2nd coal silo from being built illegally close to their children at Marsh Fork Elementary School. Numerous local citizens attested to the dangerous conditions of the school, doctors and scientists confirmed with independent evidence that unhealthy amounts of coal dust were getting into the school and hurting people, and many locals boldly suggested that the children deserved a healthy place to learn.
Of the 23 speakers, 20 out and out opposed the permit to allow a new silo. Three individuals came and spoke on behalf of the opposition, but they mostly made fools of themselves and attacked the nasty “outsiders” who were trying to come in and help their children. They might have taken offense that some were questioning the quality of their institution, but none could go so far as to encourage Massey to build another silo.
I, for the first time, saw how truly out of touch and defeatist those in the minority were. They don’t even want to win! Their outrageous claims include the following gems:

-Andrea Cook, president of the PTO, claims that all the “coal dirt” collected around he school was either from when the school was heated by coal-burning furnace, or tracked in by kids from their homes. (Larry Gibson later offered “that don’t say much about the kids homes!”). Mrs. Cook claimed that she has never EVER been sick (“NOT EVEN ONCE!”) and that there was no correlation between coal dust and health. (She was again harshly refuted by the next speaker Pauline Canterbury, whose father and husband died of silicosis and black lung, respectively.)
I believe that Mrs. Cook wants the best for her kids, but I was saddened when she summed up her entire scope of understanding of the situation by imparting to the chuckling crowd that “our kids aint dumb from coal dirt. They are much healthier in this state!” She got all fire and brimstone as well, saying that God is going to destroy everything anyway and condemning those who didn’t share her beliefs to certain damnation.”

Another staff member came and told the outsiders to leave her alone (ignoring the dozen+ local people who spoke against the coal silo) and claimed that a new Marsh Fork School couldn’t possibly be built because 1) it was too big and 2) it was too small.
I didn’t get it either.

The third “friends of coal” woman did more harm than good to her side. She opened up opening up by saying that “She had just been laid off by Massey” and that “they help everybody” in the same sentence. Still in full Massey regalia (I guess from before she was laid off,) she said that “none of the people who oppose the school have kids here!”
Firstly, NOONE “opposes the school.” Everyone supports the school and the kids. Second, WHY would someone who knew that the school was a dangerous environment send their kids there?
She then talked about how coal dust isn’t bad, and can be washed off, and her dad was on oxygen, and how we were trying to shut down the school and how she hopes we win and buld a new school, but that we can’t.
It was weird.

Among the supporters of keeping the silo away from Marsh Fork Elementary School were Don Seaburger – a chemical inhalant/toxicology specialist. Mrs. Seaburger cited a study done of Marsh Fork families.125 households were surveyed. 60 of those households had children at the schoole. 53 had children who were commonly ill, and 48 had children with regular respiratory problems. Alan Tweedle, a engineer who has measured particulates for over 40 years, and spoke of the awful filtration system in Marsh Fork Elementary and the need for more studies to be done. “This filtration system keeps out the birds, rocks, and butterflies, and that’s about it.”
Judy Bonds wondered why they were talking about putting another silo closer to the school, when they should be talking about moving the silo and the school AWAY from each other. She was the first of several people who questioned not only the legality of the permit in question, but the legality and accuracy of Massey’s maps of their property, which had been gradually expanding throughout the years. Judy requested a formal review of the maps.
Vernon Halton, from Coal River Mountain Watch, expanded on the legality of the maps, which would negate all discussion of the coal silo permit. He said that the DEP would have to examine the permits for the map boundary, and THEN apply for the new coal silo. He also pointed out that a coal silo within 300 feet of the school was contradictory to the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). A new silo would make TWO silos within 300 ft of the school building.
Appalachian state grad student Jennifer Cohen Jordan questioned the pressure washing of the playground the week before the meeting, and wondered aloud if there would be a need for a second impoundment dam above the little school. “Marley” was the first of a few Mountain Justice Summer volunteers who spoke, offering that just because he has a funny name and “looks funny” he shouldn’t be hated simply because of where he was born.
Maria Gunnow, however, was the absolute showstopper of the day. She was so good she could have charged admission. The crowd roared in approval as she called out members of the DEP publicly for being a paid off waste of tax-dollars, and for failing to enforce the laws that were currently on the books. She also pointed out that WV already has the worst air quality in the nation. She ended to thunderous applause by demanding that West Virginians instead be offered clean air, clean water, and a sustainable way of life.
She was followed by Amanda Calder who asked for a new k-12 school in Marsh Fork, and requested that there be no new silo. Andrea “no-connection-between-coal-dirt-and-health” Cook was next. Pauline Canterbury followed Mrs. Cook by giving a detailed analysis of how silicosis and black lung infect and kill those exposed to coal dust, including both her father and her husband.
Vivian Stockman of OHVEC emphasized that those working to protect the children had nothing against coal miners (in fact, many were former mine workers themselves.) Corporations, under current law, are granted “personhood.” Mrs. Stockman suggested that Massey therefore be diagnosed as sociopathic because of their anti-social personality disorder, substance abuse, and constant legal trouble due to criminal behavior.
Larry Gibson, whose property sits on top of $450 million+ worth of coal and whose family has lived on his property in the coalfields for over 225 years, opposed the silo. Larry complimented the Massey workers present. “You work hard,” he said. But he also demanded that the DEP end mountaintop removal mining completely. “We won’t have to beg these people no more!” he rorared.
Hillary Hosta brought the boil of energy in the crowd down a notch with her levelheadedness and articulation of common concerns among each citizen present. She first read a statement from a Marsh Fork parent opposing the new silo due to the hacking cough of both her boys when they are around the school. She then spoke about the need for diversifying the local economy, and giving the children a safe, local school.
Matt Norpel let it be known that he was a transplanted Jersey boy who fell in love with the mountains. “Im an outsider,” he said, “because I’m not going back to New Jersey.” He quoted an industry lawyer for the coal company whose words hung ominous over the community: “The problem with Southern West Virginia is that there are far too many people.”
Bo Webb, of Pennies of Promise, followed, and compared building another silo next to the school to smoking around your children. He didn’t preach at the crowd as Mrs. Cook had, but he did suggest some bible verses such as Revelation 11:18 and Isiah 42:11. He ended with his own bible-like wisdom – “follow the money, and you will find out why people oppose us.”
A local doctor next gave the DEP compelling scientific evidence and medical research that revealed problems related to coal dust in the elementary school. He was followed by 70 year old Julian Martin, who said that one day, if mountaintop removal continues, every mountain you look at will be gone.
Virginia H. was the second person to go up and (not support a silo, but…) yell at the people who were “attacking” her school. “Leave us alone!” she thundered, seeming to prefer her children breathed coal dust than move to put them through the trouble of being safe. She argued that 1)Marsh Fork Elementary was too big to move and that 2) It was too small to move – not enough kids. This is when a realization hit me about people like her.
We want to win. We want the kids to be safe. We want Marsh Fork to have safe local school. And the thing is…SO DO THEY! But they don’t believe it can be done! They are defeatist to their very core. This woman was a good example of that. She seemed to agree with everything that the “safe school” folks were saying. But the coal companies have invested billions of dollars and 100s of years into having people in the coalfields who will defend Coal Company X even as it executes their children. The defeatists are all that the coal companies have left! The doctors, scientists, health experts, educators, and – increasingly – the population of West Virginia are learning to say NO!
For instance, Joan Linville, the next speaker, had to hold her throat to clear her voice as she spoke. She walked with a cane because of the tumor in her knee. She BEGGED the DEP to protect her and the community from the processing plant, the coal dust, mountaintop removal, impoundment dams, and the whole ten years! She is a fourth generation miner whose grandfather and father both died of coal related illnesses. Her husband died not of chemicals at the coal company, but of contaminated water in their home. Her daughter is asthmatic. She said “if you think a job is worth all that…its not.” Mrs. Linville gave a religious perspective of her own. “If God wanted these mountain’s tore down, he’d tear them down himself!” She left to thunderous applause with “Money talks…but people talk LOUDER!”
Booby Mitchell, the next speaker, was so bold as to demand that the coal industry was responsible for its own actions. (Didn’t they ever have a father?) That inspired a spirited story by local Jackson Browning about how he had been nearly killed on the job in 1999, was still footing his own bill, and STILL couldn’t receive medical treatment because Massey denied him the proper compensation. He is fighting cancer because of the chemical toxicity of the processing plant in which he worked.
Lorella Scarborough, next, mentioned that the citizens of the area had already made clear that they didn’t want another coal silo. Why were they even THERE a second time? Again, in what is a re-occuring theme in the coalfields, her husband died of black lung (much to the dismay of the woman who claimed that there was no correlation between coal and health.)
Sarah, from Coal River Mountain Watch, was one of those who HAD gone to Marsh Fork Elementary and actually spoke. She cleared up some of the other falsities that the nay-saying women had presented and pointed out a girl whom she had attended class with.
“Dorothy” was the real bomb-thrower from the other side. She did more damage to those on her side by attesting that YES, we agree with you, and this situation is horrible, but NO we cant do anything about it. Defeatism again rearing its pathetic head. In her first sentence she said that she was “just laid off by Massey” (I guess as a testament to her coal credentials AND “they help everybody.” She was still wearing the Massey shirt they apparently gave her before she was laid off. She also made a great (though false) statement…”None of the people who oppose the school have kids here!”
Wonder why?
Her father is on oxygen. And yet, she claims that you can just “wash coal dirt” away. Her points are that we are trying to “shut down the schools.” We “oppose” the school. WV is on the tail-end of everything, so why even try!
Well, she’s right. WV is on the tail end of everything, because of defeatists like her.
How fitting then, that Ed Wiley’s wife Debbie should close out the night with the following quote. Full of grace, strength, and resolve, Debbie shook the opposition seemingly to its core by offering a steadfast pronouncement that “YES, West Virginia had always had the shit end of the stick…and ITS TIME TO CHANGE THAT!” Debbie isn’t going to let the children of Marsh Fork be poisoned just because its always been that way! She’s going to lay the bricks on the new schoolhouse herself if she has to!
That’s why we are going to win. That’s why Ed’s walk is going to work. That is why the people in Marsh Fork are going to have a new elementary school. Because the opposition has money and power, but we have REAL people (notpaidpeople), and children, and principles. And Big Coal is scared of us, because they know that we will fight until they put us in the ground. The defeatists I saw at this public hearing did NOT dampen my spirits for victory, only encouraged me that there are people who are STRONGER and who are willing to fight for what they believe in because it is the right thing to do. NOT, as the saying goes, because their paycheck depends on it.




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