As I drive around my hometown I can’t help but see the effects of coal mining in our community. Coal trucks constantly back up traffic and propagate their filth. They damage our public roadways, hooving up the center of the road until your car drags on it. To take a trip in one direction may be smooth sailing, but to go the opposite direction, the direction the loads are hauled to the tipple, your vehicle will take an merciless beating.
Rains help to rid us of the dust, yet we are reminded of the damage to our mountains when the creeks turn different shades of brown, gray or even black depending upon the strata which had been exposed by the nearest surface mine.
The handicap spaces at Wal-Mart or Food City are always full. Most of the time you’ll find brand new Chevy Tahoes, Dodge RAM 2500s, and Lincoln Navigators with Friends of Coal stickers parked in front of the local Wal-Mart, yet around the first of each month the true face of our economy is shown. The shiny new vehicles become lost amongst the worn out cars and trucks of the impoverished or disabled who have come to buy their monthly necessities using their government checks.
Everyday hundreds of people drive by foul smelling water discharges where old mine water is pumped into streams and rivers to make room for coal slurry injection, and no one stops to think it “What if it’s contaminated?” It seems like every week I hear news of someone the family knows being diagnosed with cancer. Am I ignorant to wonder if the two are related?
The problems appear insurmountable to the people of Appalachia and serve to deepen an apathy in confronting their plight. Instead many choose to ignore the problems and focus on their own lives. The ability of people to stand together to affect change has been lost amongst my neighbors.
No one seems to understand that their voices matter, and they can and will change the coalfields for the better. You can fight big coal, you can fight the natural gas companies. We can have an educational system like those outside of the coalfields, we can have public roadways that do not destroy our cars, we can have more job options than within the coal industry. We can give our children a life without poison. Standing up does work just like our forefathers found when they organized for better safety and to be paid with more than just company script. The people of the Czech Republic fought communism and won when 800,000 people came to a peaceful protest in Prague. It does work.
What will it take to turn the tide and change the minds of people within Appalachia? What will it take before people will stand up for change?
When 118 men, women, and children were killed and another 4000 were left homeless in the Buffalo Creek Disaster of 1972, you’d have thought people across Central Appalachia would have stood up and told the coal companies “Enough is enough”.
You’d think when 300 million gallons of coal slurry spilled out in Inez, Kentucky on October 11, 2000 due to the negligence of the coal industry everyone across the coalfields would want to put an end to the status quo of “profit before people”. Unsurprisingly, no massive wave of dissent was waged against Massey.
The majority of Appalachian people agree we are not getting a fair deal by the coal companies and in some cases we are being poisoned. Why is it only a handful of Appalachian people choose to do something about it and why are they ridiculed for doing so? The coal is still here, it isn’t migrating or vanishing on its own. The companies still have to pay people to mine it. It is a matter of forcing them to do it responsibly, forcing them to spare some of their massive profits to pay coal miners what they deserve in pension plans and retirement health care while also protecting our lands and our water.
What will it take to open everyone’s eyes? What will it take for everyone to stand up to the coal companies and the gas companies? How many people will have to die at once before everyone in Appalachia will raise their voices against injustice? What major disaster will it take to awaken people from their apathy?
If things continue and our mountains become a wasteland, who should be to blame? Should we blame the coal industry and our government, or the people of Appalachia whose power as a whole is much greater, yet they chose not to use it.
Daniel Hawkins is a former coal miner from Virginia. Having finally gotten fed up with current labor practices and environmental destruction within today’s Appalachian coal mines, he has left the mines in search of a better future for his family. In this series, he looks into Appalachia’s past and possibilities for the future. You can find his full series on his own blog, http://thoughtfulcoalminer.blogspot.com/. This post originally appeared on Daniel’s blog on Saturday, December 11, 2010.