Having lived in West Virginia for 5 years and graduating (long ago) from Huntington High School, the state and its people are often in my thoughts and always in my heart.
Last week I received an email from a friend of a friend who lives in West Virginia and was forwarding an article about the recent chemical spill. She commented that the article expressed many of her questions from the past 35 years she has lived in the state, but she had never felt the rage expressed by the author.
This is what I wrote to her:
I feel this rage so often, with each story about the exploitation of West Virginia, stories I read multiple times a week, probably because I seek out stories about mountaintop removal, coal slurry waste in streams and threatening schools and homes behind “dams”, WV politics (Don Blankenship buying judges, etc.).
This is the rant that I identified most with:
“To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us.”
When I attended my 40th reunion in 2007, I thought I could have a conversation with my HS buddies about mountaintop removal. It was more in the news then, and I was outraged. I naively thought that once the people of WV knew the truth, they would rise up and work to protect the health of their citizens and of their lovely environment.
Boy was I wrong. When I tried to I start that conversation, two of my high school friends looked at each other and then said something like “you don’t understand about jobs in WV”. I was stunned. Even I, in 2007, knew that the coal industry was employing fewer and fewer people in the state – not because they were purposely reducing their coal extraction but because the work can be mechanized more and more. So now they can rape more of the land without providing more jobs. And, of course, this whole topic begs the question that if the coal company jobs are so great, how come in 2011 WV ranked 49th out of 50 in terms of median household income? As that article says:
“If you keep people poor, you keep them desperate.”
Of course you can’t kick out polluting industries without having a backup plan for new jobs, and that would require the cooperation of the state’s political leaders, the same leaders who have been in the pocket of the coal/chemical companies. Why on earth would the coal companies want to encourage employment alternatives?
Until the Mountaineers get together to clean up their state’s politics and hold their industries accountable for destroying lives and the environment, they will never be free (“Montani semper liberi” is the state motto).
It takes all West Virginians – whether they were affected by the chemical spill or not, whether they can look out their windows and see decapitated mountains or not, whether their wells are now spewing orange and black water or not – to clean up their state. And I, now a Californian, can’t be much help because I am now an outsider. It’s frustrating, and I actually am driven to tears over it.