The Toll of Coal

By Nathan Fetty

Every so often, my wife and I take our daughter, who’s now two-and-a-half, on one of our favorite walks in the country here in central West Virginia.  To get there, unfortunately, we have to pass by torrents of orange acid mine drainage (photo examples here and here) and through a landscape brutalized by mining.  But the woods and streams beyond this devastation are as prime as any in West Virginia. That’s why we keep going there.  We want our child to know these kinds of special places.

Our daughter’s becoming more and more verbal. She loves to point out things as she’s going along. “I see a school bus,” she’ll say, or “I see doggies!”  Earlier this year, we passed the old mine site on our way to someplace more beautiful. Our daughter was jabbering as usual and then declared, “I see orange water.”

And then it hit me.

For her, day-glow orange water may always, to some degree, be normal. It is among her earliest perceptions. That’s appalling enough. But then I started thinking more about the havoc wrought by the coal industry in our area during her short time on earth so far.  The orange water is only the beginning.

A few weeks before her birth, her mother and I – and the rest of the world – watched the Sago disaster unfold here, which claimed 12 coal miners’ lives. Her mother and I listened, sunken, as traffic streamed to the makeshift morgue at the old school next to our backyard.  We were among the hundreds at the community memorial service a couple of weeks later, working through the collective trauma dealt to our community.

Over the next few months, two more Sago miners committed suicide.

And then that little Sago community found itself pitted against the coal company because of the unbearable noise, dust and sludge brought on by heavy truck traffic hauling coal to market. The residents were just trying to live and breathe, and the truck drivers were just doing their job. And there sat the company itself, with other options at its disposal, but it fought tooth and nail to continue with business as usual.  It must be cheaper and easier that way.

Plus, at other mines in this area, several more miners lost their lives one at a time, but those tragedies didn’t grab many headlines. The rest of the country already had started to forget about Sago.

Meanwhile, miners working in a neighboring county have sky-high rates of black lung disease – and, generally speaking, the prevalence of new cases of black lung has doubled in recent years, even though the disease is entirely preventable. To add insult to injury, this black lung spike is in spite of a nearly-40-year-old directive from Congress to eliminate black lung. 

And then consider the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars being spent every year on acid mine drainage treatment in our county alone for coal companies who have gone belly-up and left their toxic mistakes for the rest of us to deal with.  This is money that we will spend in perpetuity.  If only the coal industry paid its own way, that money instead could go to schools, libraries, infrastructure, youth sports and recreation, health care, or other public services. Maybe then my daughter’s day care wouldn’t have to be planning a bake sale right now to buy new toys for the kids.

If the coal industry is as good as the salvo of industry PR would have us believe, I shudder to think what more is in store for future generations here.

Fetty, of Buckhannon, W.Va., is a staff attorney with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment who focuses on coal mine health and safety.

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