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May 09, 2012

More From the India to Appalachia Trip: Coal Destroys Communities

Coal slurry
"I call it coalfield Stockholm Syndrome. We've been oppressed for so long that people think the thing oppressing them is actually helping them." This is how Dustin White, an eleventh generation West Virginian, explained the relationship between Appalachians and coal companies to visiting activists who fight destructive fossil fuel projects in India.

Even the schools here push out coal industry propaganda, telling students they don't need to get an education, they can become miners. Dustin's nephew was given an assignment to write a report on reclamation, and the school tried to fail him when he turned in a report saying you can never return a mountain to what it was before mountaintop removal coal mining.

But it wasn't always this way. West Virginia's first industry was water. Rich people used to travel here for the clean, pure water, long before mountaintop removal mining left it contaminated with mercury, selenium, and other heavy metals.

Dustin whiteDustin (pictured at the left) always felt that he owed something to the coal companies, but that all changed when he flew over the coalfields. He told us one of the hardest things he has ever faced was sitting next to his mother as they looked down on what is left of Cook Mountain, which his family has lived on or near since 1849. All that remained was the cemetery where generations of Cooks are buried, surrounded by the mine. The cemetery wouldn't even be there if Dustin's uncle hadn't stopped by to care for it as the coal company was preparing to destroy it. His family was never told, even though they had maintained the cemetery for over a century. (Read more about Dustin and how coal is threatening his family cemetery in this Sierra magazine article)

Coal may have helped put food on his table, but that mountain has given birth to generations of Cooks, right up to his mother. Now it is being destroyed, while Blair Mountain, sight of the famous labor battle that Dustin's father fought in, is also threatened. As Dustin sees it, he owes his life to two mountains.

Over in Beardsfork, another mountain community is fighting for its very existence. Regina Gilbert told us she had a similar experience to Dustin flying over the coalfields in a small plane. First she was devastated, and then she got angry. Her neighbor Catherine South was worried that that if mountaintop removal coal mining continued they might not have a community left; it would be filled with rocks. Outsiders and coal spokespeople say there isn't anything worth saving in Beardsfork, but for Gene Underwood this is his home, his community. He has lived here all his life.

But Debi Goenka brought a message of hope from India. In his forty years of working on environmental issues against seemingly insurmountable odds, he has become convinced that a couple of determined individuals who refuse to give in can win. The key is that they have to be willing to fight; no one will do it for you. That's what is happening in India when entire villages rise up to halt new coal development, and it is what is happening in West Virginia when residents and workers stand up to the coal companies behind mountaintop removal coal mining.

Dustin calls what is happening in Appalachia the eradication of a people. The history is being blown up with the mountains, and the future generations are being killed. West Virginia has some of the highest birth defect rates in the country. The clinic where his mother works used to be quiet. Now it is filled with people on oxygen carrying shopping bags full of medications.

Everything comes back to the mountains: the destruction of people's bodies, the destruction of people's communities, and even the destruction of people's souls. Cynthia Rawlands from Beardsfork explained it another way. "These mountains are our heart, and we need our hearts to love. Please don't take our hearts."

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club Campaign Liaison. Photo of Dustin White by Shawn Poynter.

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