Spring break for co-eds is often viewed as a time of excess and consumption, mixed with images of beaches and umbrella drinks. For a handful of Indiana youth, this past spring break was an experience in consumption and excess, except there was no sand between our toes, just coal dust.
We experienced a landscape of destruction and the price paid for our nation’s mindless addiction to energy and unwillingness to face the truth.
Several Indiana University students visited the coalfields of southern West Virginia, also known as “Coal Country” but maybe more accurately described as the “Belly of the Beast.” We planned a trip to see and hear firsthand accounts of life in southern West Virginia, the area of America we chose to sacrifice for our present day novelties and lifestyle.
I work with students around Indiana fighting coal plants on their campuses, the stranglehold Duke Energy has on our statehouse and the pollution that comes from both. In Indiana there is a state mandate that basically says any state-run institution, such as public universities, that burns coal for electricity must purchase coal fromIndiana.
Call it the state’s twisted version of a “buy local” campaign.
Though we don’t have mountains in Indiana, we do have deposits of coal. That makes our state a prime spot for strip mines that devastate the land. Indiana is home to the largest strip mine east of the Mississippi — Bear Run which is about 100 miles southwest of Indianapolis in Sullivan County — and the most dangerous coal ash ponds in the U.S.
The coal being burned at Indiana and Purdue universities comes from the Hoosier state. The energy purchased from Duke on the grid to provide electricity, however, comes from places like West Virginiaand practices such as mountaintop removal coal mining.
Mountaintop removal is just what it sounds like. Coal companies, in order to cut down on costs, have developed a method in which they clear cut the forest, then use explosives to blow the tops off the mountains to get to the thin coal seams beneath them. They then dump the remainder of the soil, rock and trees, also known as “overburden,” into the valleys, covering streams and polluting the water for area residents.
While in West Virginia, we stayed with a couple who are part of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, an organization fighting to preserve the land and save it from destruction by the coal industry. Sid and Dana were our host family and quickly became like surrogate parents and guardians, while two young men, Junior and Adam, from the organization Coal River Mountain Watch, acted as our protectors and tour guides.
They opened their homes and their hearts to this group of strangers, sharing their stories and hoping we would share them with our communities back home.
We spent our first night around a campfire, hearing accounts of coal industry bullying, abuse and a history of dangerous and negligent tactics. As each West Virginian told his or her story, we were given a deeper look into the heart of the pain in Appalachia.
Adam is one example. His family lived on their land for generations, their home situated on top of millions of dollars worth of black rock. The coal industry tried unsuccessfully for years to convince his family to sell their land to be mined. Finally, after two years of harassment and bullying, they gave in and were awarded with only 10 percent of what the land was valued at initially, sending them into a poverty cycle that took years to break.
Due to this loss of income and home, Adam enlisted in the Army. He quickly moved up the ranks and was sent to Afghanistan to fight a war that took the lives of several of his friends. Upon his return from war, he immediately took up arms in a different battle — the fight for his homeland. He now lives in a small community in southern West Virginia threatened by coal mining and a massive sludge dam casting a shadow over his home.
While in Appalachia, we were built relationships and connections to the people there. These are the folks on the front line, the people who need the most support, the folks receiving threats and living with the shadow of corruption in their land.
We were told about the Buffalo Creek sludge dam break in 1972 that killed more than 100 people and left 4,000 homeless when 132 million gallons of toxic sludge flooded 17 small towns in Buffalo Creek Hollow. We heard about an infant who was killed in his crib when an errant boulder from a mine site came crashing down on his home. We heard about water that is so toxic it runs red out of the faucet and is undrinkable. We heard about the 2.8 billion gallon toxic coal sludge dam that sits directly above a middle school, waiting to break at the next blast of C-4. We saw Coal River Mountain, the last stronghold of a community fighting to maintain its identity, a mountain slated for destruction. These are the terrifying and dangerous realities that these people cope with every day of their lives.
We heard about how Junior has had death threats left on his apartment door and can’t travel alone. These people are literally fighting for their lives, living in a place where industry has ruled for more than a century and where they have to fight every day to keep another mountain intact.
Currently more than 500 mountains have been destroyed and more than 2,000 miles of streams are gone, all for our wanton consumption. We can change this. We just need to work together to ensure that these stories are told and action follows. On campuses students and young people are carrying on these conversations with their peers and ensuring that this issue is known.
Don’t be fooled. The coal industry is losing its grip in the U.S., but until we as citizens stand up for our neighbors, any amount of power is too much for Big Coal. “Welcome Home” was the term we kept hearing while staying with Sid and Dana.
Welcome home, America. Until this changes, we are all from “Coal Country.”
For more information about the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining visit crmw.net.
Reflections onWest Virginia
By Novella Shuck, IU-Bloomington
Our trip to West Virginia was important to me because I don’t think I quite understood beforehand what it is like to live in such a challenging place and to have the culture of coal mining be so tangible and so tangled up with the different spheres of one’s life.
Every day in southern West Virginia, these people wake up and coal is a part of their lives. And it is not an abstract, “I suppose this electricity must come from somewhere,” kind of way. It is a very real, concrete presence.
Coal is everywhere, in the dirt beneath your feet, in the trains and trucks that pass you on the narrow, winding roads. Perhaps more significantly, it is there in the history, in people’s sense of family and heritage.
If you stop and ask someone what they think about coal, you will not get the blank stares that you so often get elsewhere. You also will not get vague opinions based on economics or global climate trends. Instead, you get passion and intensity from people whose lives have been fundamentally shaped, too often tragically, by coal companies willing to do anything to get at that certain rock beneath the soil.
Coal matters here. This trip was really only a brief glimpse at the relationship between West Virginians and coal. But to interact in such a personal way laid a very important weight of responsibility on my shoulders.
After all, we must be held accountable for our energy actions.
Right now, West Virginia is reaching a point of no return. If we continue to mine coal, especially through the more “efficient,” more destructive methods of mountaintop removal and stripe mining, the land soon will be destroyed beyond repair and a way of life will be lost.
Personally, I think Appalachia is worth protecting and, despite witnessing such massive environmental destruction, I am inspired to have met so many individuals dedicated to representing the people, holding the coal companies accountable, and preserving their homes and land.
Fighting for a clean energy future
Megan Anderson, IU-Bloomington
As president of Coal Free IU and a student leader in Indiana it can be easy to lose sight of the true reason we organize. Running the Beyond Coal campaign on campus allows us to talk about the problem and try to find solutions, but we also get mired in bureaucracy and process.
This spring break several of my peers and I took the time to reconnect with another side of this issue and witness the impact of the coal industry first hand. At IU and in Indiana we deal with the effects of mining and poor air quality. But in southern West Virginia they are dealing with some of the most concentrated deadly effects of pollution, exploitation and corruption fueled by mountaintop removal coal mining. We spent the week with folks fighting against mountaintop removal coal mining and learned about their struggle and their vision for a sustainable Appalachia.
My experience was incredibly emotional, especially as we looked out upon a strip mine site that covered the land as far as the eye could see and had ruined an entire range of mountains.
We spent two nights on Kayford Mountain where Larry Gibson lives and where his family has lived for more than 200 years. The scenery has changed, the ecosystem has changed and the way of life has changed drastically during that time. What was once a quiet mountain is now nearly decimated and is continuously assaulted by the sound of explosives, heavy haul trucks and draglines.
Kayford has paid the price for “cheap electricity.” However, it has never had any electricity of its own, until a few years ago when Gibson purchased the first solar panel for his home.
The people of West Virginia and Appalachia are on the front lines of this fight for a clean energy future and we in Indiana are fighting alongside them.
In southern Indiana people are fighting the unchecked expansion of coal mines, coal plants and coal ash ponds. Let’s not forget about them; let’s work with them. Let’s start here and make Indiana a true leader in clean energy production. Starting with our campuses is the best example. Ball State is showing great leadership by investing in a geothermal system for its campus.
IU and Purdue can and should be leaders, part of the solution, not the problem.