A New West Virginia

In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey wrote, “When a man must be afraid to drink freely from his country’s rivers and streams, that country is no longer fit to live in. Time to move on, to find another country or—in the name of Jefferson—to make another country.”
I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately, ever since Freedom Industries’ storage tanks leaked a toxic chemical(s) into the Elk River in Charleston, WV, on January 9, leaving 300,000 people in nine counties without water to drink, cook with, or bathe in. The people have been given the go-ahead to use the water, but some say it still smells like licorice (or Jagermeister, according to one resident). Would you drink that water? I sure wouldn’t.

Sadly, water pollution is nothing new to West Virginia. Decades of spills, leaks, and discharges (both intentional and unintentional) by the coal and chemical industries have turned our creeks a whole rainbow of toxic colors—orange, white, yellow, black. Where I live near Morgantown, the abandoned Richard Mine dumps heavy metals (iron, aluminum, magnesium) into Deckers Creek every day; when the water is low the orange rocks of the streambed are often visible. The mine is about five miles upstream from the Monongahela River, the source of our community’s drinking water. And then there’s the water pollution that you might not be able to see, such as radiation, and conductivity from solids dissolved in the water.
I often take clean drinking water for granted; it comes from a municipal source, so of course it’s clean, right? I was raised to be wary of “wild” water—we had orange rocks in our streams, too—and I remember being warned, often, not to drink from the creeks (called “cricks” where I’m from). I don’t remember questioning it much as a child, which is very, very sad. Water in the woods, from a stream running cold between hemlocks, over mossy rocks, around boulders, was dangerous, but water from a tap was safe. How offensive, sad, and backwards.

I think it’s time that we take Edward Abbey’s advice: let’s make another country, another West Virginia, another Appalachia—one where our streams and rivers support life, one where our industries don’t run our government, one where protecting our health and home is as important as protecting our often dangerous, ultimately unsustainable jobs. Let’s make it a place where our young people want to stay, instead of a place from which they flee. Let’s make it a place that’s admired, instead of a place that people in other states mock. Let’s make it a place where we can drink the wild water and breathe the wild air. The first step will be the most difficult: we must fundamentally change the way we think about the coal industry.

Before I go any further, understand that this is not an attack on heritage—coal mining is my heritage, too. My great-great grandfather is buried in the Catholic cemetery behind the Whipple Company Store in Scarbro, West Virginia. He lived along Paint Creek at the time of West Virginia’s first labor war in 1912. When I hear Hazel Dickens sing “Coal Miner’s Grave,” a haunting song that mentions that armed struggle, I tear up. His son, my great-grandfather, one time a president of his local UMWA chapter, lost his eye in a mining accident in Pennsylvania. My grandfather worked as “breaker boy,” separating coal from waste material as it came up out of the mines. He struggled with complications from Black Lung until his death a few years ago.

Learning the history of coal mining in Appalachia is important to me; it’s part of who I am. But it’s an ugly history, and it’s an ugly industry. Working conditions have always been dangerous. The cemetery where my great-great-grandfather is buried has a memorial to workers killed in the mines, and workers are still being killed in the mines today (just last week, on January 16, a 20-year-old miner was killed in Tucker County).
It’s time, folks. Well past time. We need to change the way we think about coal. We need to realize what the rest of the country (and indeed the world) already knows—that coal is a fuel of the past. We should begin planning, now, for the inevitable future—a future without coal. And in the meantime, while we keep mining coal, let’s make damn sure we don’t screw up the natural systems that our very lives depend on, our water, air, and soil. We need to stop letting industries run amok—tighten up the regulations, hire more inspectors, stop giving tax breaks to companies to come here and pollute. Utilize the best of modern technology in our mines and processing plants, not rusty old tanks and leaky plastic liners.

We’d also do well to shake off our collective cultural masochism and say NO. No, we won’t work without adequate safety measures. No, we won’t accept that new chemical plant in our town. No way, we won’t let you blow up that mountain. No. We won’t be a national sacrifice zone any longer. We deserve better. We demand better.
This is all easier said than done, I realize, as I type this on my laptop in a warm room with an electric light. While nationally coal only provides something like 35% of the electricity, in West Virginia it’s more like 95%. I can see the smoke stacks from two coal-fired power plants from my front porch, which remind me to unplug unused appliances and turn off my lights.

This is a bit of a tangent, but it’s connected. As a consumer, I’d like to be able to choose where my electricity comes from. At the moment, unless I produce my own, I don’t have a choice. Ideally, before hooking up to the grid, I’d like to compare prices, pollution rates, energy sources, etc., from several competing companies. And I’d choose the company that doesn’t use coal. I’d like choices about water, too. Mine comes from the Mon. I don’t have any other options. So if the scales ever tip and the Mon becomes too polluted to drink, my family will be waterless. (I suddenly feel very vulnerable, and I don’t like it.)
I’d like to close with some sort of call to action; I don’t have much original to suggest, just to encourage people to act, and to vote. If you hear about a threat to your water, air, or land, tell others. Write letters. Ask questions, and if the answers don’t satisfy you, say no. And vote them out. Vote out politicians who repeat the tired old coal mantras from the early 20th century. Vote for innovation. Vote for new ideas to solve old problems. Vote for someone who stands for your best interests, not someone who stands for the best interests of out-of-state corporations. If you look around and no one running for office fits this bill, then consider running yourself. Or encourage others to run. Someone’s already used “hope and change” as a campaign slogan, but West Virginia could sure use a heaping dose of change. And hope.

Edward Abbey also wrote, “Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation.” He’s right. I think we can make another West Virginia. A better one, a cleaner one, a West Virginia where we know and are proud of our heritage but are ready to move into the future—a future of our own design.