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Talking Drum

The Talking Drum: Coal Mining in WV

Child coal miners in 1908

Child coal miners in 1908

NESTLED AMONG THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS, West Virginia is a state remarkable for its natural beauty and is slow to change. The economy of the state has been reliant on coal for nearly two hundred years, but increasing restrictions coming from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with the development of other, more sustainable energy sources, has lead to a decline in coal usage for decades. This decline has residents of the state clamoring to hold on to what few jobs are left in the coal industry. From the coffee shops to the legislature, West Virginians talk a lot about how the state can hold onto coal and gripe about how Obama is “killing” it, despite the fact that the resource saw its peak use back in 1940. Since 1979, West Virginia has led the country in the number of residents who are either not working or looking for work, yet it seems that no one is investing their energies into coming up with a plan to survive the inevitable death of the coal business

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A coal barge on the Kanawha River which flows through Charleston, West Virginia

Though the progress of the state of West Virginia has been reliant on the sacrifice of its natural resources, this land was once populated by those who were actually concerned with the preservation of the nature they relied on entirely for their survival. Until this day, the state still bears the mark of its indigenous history in the names of natural landmarks like the Kanawha River, named after the Kanawha tribe of Native Americans, and the Monongahela River, which means “falling banks” in the tongue of the Delaware tribe that came to occupy this land as well. Before colonial invasion, this area was the source of competition among numerous tribes like the Shawnee, Cherokee and Iroquois for its vast natural resources. They covered the land now known as West Virginia and utilized the abundant resources to build small villages made up of wigwams (huts made of tree bark), hunted small game, wild boar, deer and buffalo using spears with arrowheads made of rock, fished the many rivers and even cultivated corn, bean and squash. The Adena people created burial mounds for their dead in this area and there are 424 recorded mounds just in the borders of what is today known as West Virginia.

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An Apache wigwam (hut) made of straw

Native Americans understood that because we come from nature we must use it to survive but we also have an obligation to take care of nature to ensure our survival as a species in the future. Indigenous cultures in general consider their impact on the harmony of the Earth whenever they weigh how to utilize natural resources. Their goal is to use nature in such a way that minimal disturbance is created. When we abandon our responsibility for nature, using its resources for our gain without examining its effects on the nature itself, we end up putting our own survival in jeopardy. Native Americans used coal for cooking, heating, pottery, etc. yet still managed to preserve the Earth; perhaps they knew something we haven’t considered?

Coal has been reported to have been mined commercially in West Virginia as early as 1810. The growing West Virginia salt industry in the 1820’s and 1830’s spurred the use of coal as a fuel. Originally, workers used wood to fuel the furnaces in which brine, found abundantly along the Kanawha River banks, could be boiled, thereby producing salt. Coal production increased quickly, first for local use, then  for export to surrounding areas using rivers and eventually by railroad as major rail lines were completed in 1883.

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Modern machines of destruction drilling holes deep in the Earth

Today, coal is the largest source of energy for electricity worldwide and the environmental effects of its use are just as far-reaching. Air pollution from coal-fired plants and coal mines contributes numerous chemicals in the atmosphere and approximately 44% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Coal dust stirred up during the mining process and in its transportation is responsible for severe, even deadly respiratory problems. The medical system recognizes that coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), commonly known as black lung, comes from long-term inhalation of this dust and is responsible for approximately 25,000 deaths each year worldwide. According to a 2010 study, approximately 6.8% of forests have been destroyed in Appalachia so far by mountaintop removal mining and much flooding from erosion has resulted without the benefits of tree roots holding the soil in place. Water sources both above and underground are polluted with acid mine drainage, coal combustion waste and coal sludge, also known as slurry, which are created in coal’s extraction, washing, and processing. These effects are but some of the impacts on the environment we make for the electricity that we rely on today.

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Mountain top removal mine

Time and time again, we see instances of how we have abused our access to the coal reserves of Earth yet we somehow find a way to excuse it. On January 9, 2014, residents reported a strange, sweet licorice smell in the air near the Elk River municipal water intake of West Virginia American Water, a private utility company that supplies the majority of water to residents in 9 counties. It was discovered by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that an estimated 10,000 gallons of an industrial chemical, crude 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), used to wash coal after being mined, spilled into the river after leaking from a hole in a World War II-era storage tank owned by Freedom Industries. This incident affected approximately 300,000 West Virginia residents, contaminating the entire water supply they used for drinking, bathing, cooking and more. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reported side effects from using contaminated water included “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.” The governor declared a state of emergency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) brought in potable water by truck, spread over 9 counties, until the “do not drink” ban was lifted finally on January 18.

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Demolition of Freedon Industries’ tank that leaked toxic chemicals into the water supply

Despite the ban being lifted, residents continued to pour into hospitals and thousands phoned the Center for Disease Control (CDC), reporting symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and fainting. Twelve days later, Freedom Industries reported that an additional chemical, PPH, had also spilled into the river yet the exact amount was unknown. Neither West Virginia American Water nor state officials had information about the toxicity of either chemical prior to this incident and subsequent investigations have shown that Freedom Industries even lied to authorities about the full scope of the situation. Until this day, no one can say just how dangerous these chemicals are to breathe or drink. On the surface, the local community was affected by weeks of business and school closures but we still don’t know how far-reaching the effects will be to the animal and plant life that rely on this water source, as well as our own human bodies!

We continue to allow ourselves to destroy the environment without much more than a slap on the wrist. Recently, Gary Southern, the president of Freedom Industries was sentenced to a month in prison and a small $20,000 fine (his net worth exceeds $7 million). Of the five defendants with charges related to the incident, Southern faced the harshest penalty: up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines. The other four individuals got probation and fines and the company, Freedom Industries itself, received $900,000 in fines which it will never have to pay due to its insolvency. Before the drinking ban had even been lifted, Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and only two months later an eerily similar company named Lexycon, LLC filed for a business license with a Freedom Industries executive as its founder and is run by many of the same people. Lexycon, LLC, racked up eight environmental citations from state regulators in the first four months of operations since the official opening of its Nitro, West Virginia location in September 2015. Government inspectors even found the same little-known chemical that leaked from Freedom Industries’ tank into the water supply, despite the Lexycon president’s promise to a federal judge that this new company wouldn’t store it.

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Explosion at coal mine in Farmington, WV killed 78 workers in 1968

In this society, we find excuses to commit any evil, even if we pay the ultimate price. No human finds themselves separate from nature; it inhabits every part of our physical being and is the reason we can even exist at all. If you look in the past, you’ll see that we’re gaining momentum on our path of destruction and no one can stop us but ourselves or our complete self-destruction. For thousands of years, our Ancestors found ways to fit in the harmony of nature while employing a level of genius our modern society has yet to recreate. That genius comes by using our minds and logic to advance ourselves, while still preserving this world for the generations to come. In the grand scheme, our short life is but a mere dot in the destiny of the universe, so it’s time we stop living like our presence is a blessing to the world. It’s time we start recognizing the reality of existence that nature has imposed on us, take responsibility for the tools that we have to survive and stop dooming the future of our children.

 

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