We need to move away from coal, but we cannot forget about what that means for the people who live in coal country

To the Editor:

For most people reading this letter, it is likely that you have never heard of Welch, West Virginia, or Gary, West Virginia. It is likely that the majority of you have not heard of the county these towns are located in: McDowell County.

But I bet most of you have heard of “West Virginia coal.”  I first learned about the destruction in the coalfields in “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” by Joe Sacco and Chris Hedges. In G.M. Ferrell’s 1992 U.S. Geological Survey piece, Ferrell says that more coal has been mined out of McDowell County than any other county in West Virginia.

McDowell County currently is among the poorest counties in the nation. How much money was made off of McDowell County coal that was not returned back to the towns that it was mined from?

There are a host of problems that underground mining and mountaintop removal cause. Mountaintop removal, called MTR, is when the layers of mountain in between and sometimes on top of layers of coal, or coal seams as they are called, are first cleared of trees and then blasted and dumped into valley fills.

People usually live in these valleys, locally called hollers. Although most of these problems impact those who live in the coalfields, what we do in New York has a direct impact on people in McDowell County and other coal-mining counties in West Virginia.

A lot of the time, big-coal companies headquarters are based here in New York State. Although we do not see the destruction in the coalfields, the coal mined from that area powers the lights in our shopping malls, as well as the TV left on in a room where no one is watching it.

Sarah J. Surber and D. Scott Simonton in their article, “Disparate impacts of coal mining and reclamation concerns for West Virginia and central Appalachia,” rank McDowell County last out of the 55 counties in West Virginia in health rating, and seventh out of 34 for mined acres. Therefore, there is a clear correlation between number of mines and the poor health outcomes.

Most of the people of McDowell County have undrinkable water from mining blasts dropping water tables and chemicals leaching into them. Black lung and other illnesses caused by coal dust are extremely common as well.

Flooding from the lack of trees and vegetation absorbing rainfall on the mountains are frequent. But the environmental effects are not just regional, and everyone should care about the destruction of habitat and home in our country.

It is no secret that most of the politicians who claim to represent the interests of the people of West Virginia, are connected to Big Coal in some way.  There are no ways to find the coal companies responsible for violating the law, because politicians and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection look the other way.

Coal takes from the communities it is mined from. It ruins the air and water, and people’s lives. But in McDowell County, there are very few jobs that do not involve coal.

That is why McDowell County went Republican in 2016, after Hillary Clinton said she was against coal. McDowell County went for Barack Obama in 2008.

Mining regulations need to be enforced, to protect people and the environment, and a federal investigation should be launched to weed Big Coal out of West Virginia politics.

At every mining site, an “insurance bond” between $1,000 and $5,000 is agreed to be paid by the mining companies in the chance that they will abandon the site, go bankrupt, or to pay for damages.  But the prices of these bonds are entirely too low — $5,000 is not nearly enough to cover the cost of permanently damaging residents water tables.

The main issue for McDowell County is a lack of jobs that pay well. A lack of jobs means a lot of people turn to drugs.

The opioid crisis is especially bad in McDowell County. McDowell County leads the United States in opioid overdoses and hospitalizations.

Perhaps McDowell County can be a hub of wind or solar power.  We need to move away from coal, but we cannot forget about what that means for the people who live in coal country. They need jobs, too.  McDowell County needs our help.

Omarra Hannibal-Williams


More Letters to the Editor

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.