India - Appalachia Coal Community Exchange: Day Four
“There was a deliberate decision to poison people.”
This is how Dustin Steele, Wilma’s grandson, described why he became an activist. The coal companies were ejecting slurry and waste from the mining operations back into the underground mines without notifying people that their groundwater would likely be contaminated. Cancer rates in the community skyrocketed, and even 13 and 14-year-old children were developing strange cancers. No one knew why until the situation got so bad that sludge started coming out of the taps instead of water.
The corruption and harm coal brings to the most vulnerable is the same everywhere.
Dustin’s story is repeated time and time again across the world. Amulya told us how in Odisha massive power plants used to discharge toxic coal ash directly into streams. It took years of organizing from the local community to force the companies send the waste to disposal sites, but even now leaky pipes are known to break and flood nearby villages. Meanwhile, the water is still unfit for human consumption.
Vaishali explained that in Konkan (India) they don’t even need to deal with rivers and streams. Companies simply pump water straight from the ocean and then discharge it back into the sea with all the toxic byproducts from the coal plants, poisoning fish and fishermen alike.
Wilma’s family has lived in Appalachia for over 300 years. She has seen firsthand how mountaintop removal mining tears apart the mountains and permanently alters the landscape. Instead of carrying fresh water when the rains come, the streams bring toxic runoff from the mines. And with natural barriers destroyed, her community is seeing flooding in places where it’s never happened before.
In Odisha (India) the situation is even more extreme. Pollution and underground coal fires have caused the temperature to reach as much as 52 degrees Centigrade. That works out to 126 degrees Fahrenheit, an unimaginable temperature for people to live in.
The most impacted people never see the benefits.
Massive power projects in India feed industry, but the villagers left to deal with the toxic pollution often can’t access the electricity. In Appalachia, much of the coal has been plundered from the mountains, and companies are turning to fracking—pumping water and chemicals into the ground to crack the shale and release natural gas. But Wilma explained that no one in Appalachia even uses natural gas. It’s all transported elsewhere, while local water supplies are ruined.
But communities are not simply standing by and allowing all this destruction happen without opposition. Not only are they organizing in their home towns and villages, but they are networking across the globe. Wilma has met with people from around the world, including visitors from Africa working on fracking and labor organizers from Columbia.
“No corporation has the right to exploit the natural resources. They belong to everyone … and we are going to decide what is good for us,” Vaishali explained. “Whatever you do here (in Appalachia) is important to us … when you save a mountain you save our livelihoods too.”
-- Nicole Ghio