Paula Swearengen — one of OVEC’s most active volunteer-leaders — delivered this speech on January 17, on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol during a Water Unites Us rally, part of January: A Month of Water events. We hope that all who read these words will be as moved by them as we are:
Hi, I am Paula Swearingen. I am originally from Mullens, WV. I am a volunteer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Sierra Club. This is my friend, Dustin White and he is an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. He has graciously volunteered to stand up here with me today to give you a visual of the water quality all over West Virginia.
Throughout the years I have got to speak at rallies outside of West Virginia. I am relieved I finally get to talk about my experiences at home. Please bear with me. Normally when I speak I don’t write things down. But, what I have to say today is so important to me that I don’t want to leave anything out.
I am a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter. Like many in this state that are connected to the industry, I was proud of that. But, I have lived long enough to swallow my pride because I had to face the reality of what it’s like to have a family of coal miners. My friend Dustin and I have something painful in common. I buried my father at 52 years old to cancer. When MCHM leached into Dustin’s terminally ill father’s tap, he had to melt snow to wash his dying father. Not only did he have to struggle to care for a loved one during that time — like me, he has had to struggle with what life is like in the coalfields. My grandfather spent 45 years in the coal mines. I watched him suffocate to death with black lung. My step dad was a coal miner. He has heart disease and has had open heart surgery. My uncles have black lung. I have buried so many family members that I fell like our theme song is Amazing Grace.
When I think about my family members, I don’t define them because of their profession. They are heroes to me because they sacrificed and suffered for the ones they loved. Their suffering has been unbearable and painful to watch.
I have lived long enough to not only see MCHM pollute 300,000 people’s water last year, but to watch people all over Appalachia struggle with chemicals in their water. I have seen my neighbor’s children have cancer. Twenty-nine miners died because safety regulations were ignored and not enforced. The most beautiful mountains in the world to me are being blown up. Our streams and rivers run black and orange. People no longer feel safe in their homes when the industry moves in next door. Not only can they pollute our water, but they can destroy our land and destroy our homes. I am frightened at the separation and the lack of humanity that has become a way of life. What have we become? Our leaders have failed us. More importantly we have failed each other. No man or woman should have to choose between poisoning a child and feeding another. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, we need to ask our leaders why, and demand that they do their job!
Public health and safety should not be sold out to the highest bidder. Do we really want our children to inherit these struggles? It’s past time; stop the fear that divides us. We need to start standing up for each other. There are alternatives.
We have got to stop fighting for our own demise and start standing up for our children! I for one don’t want my children to hear the countless stories of heartache that my grandfather told me. The legacy of widows learning their husbands were buried alive should end today! We live in a land that comes last in opportunity. We are one of the sickest and poorest states in the nation. Water is our most valuable resource. Take a look at the photos Dustin is holding up. Take a hard look at the waters of West Virginia. We are the headwaters of the entire eastern seaboard.
We cannot live without clean water. Like water, our struggles flow throughout our borders. All of us are impacted one way or another. We have to conquer the divide. West Virginia is thirsty for clean water and we are hungry for change. Our leaders are in session this month. Take a stand. Make your voice heard! Start today! March and unite! Our nation was founded on the premise “by the people, for the people.” Remind our leaders that they work for us and demand they start working on a solution. Appalachians have always been strong and our ancestors fought many labor struggles and won! I haven’t given up on us. Our children are depending on us to do the right thing.
This nation is fueled by the blood of our people! It’s time for an uprising!
-No more mountaintop removal!
-No more fracking!
-No more slurry injections!
-No more sludge ponds!
-No more irresponsibility!
-We want clean air and water
-We want safe, diverse and sustainable jobs!
-We want a future for our children!
West Virginia, Unite!
Show your unity: Be sure to come out for West Virginia Environmental Council’s E-Day! to show your support for clean water, clear air and clean-ed up politics in West Virginia. E-Day! is February 18 starting at 10 a.m. in the Lower Rotunda of the West Virginia State Capitol.
And, please, write letters to the editor of your hometown newspaper and other papers, too.