OVEC’s Vivian Stockman and I took a tour of the beautiful, new Marsh Fork Elementary School during the open house January 4, and on January 18 a formal dedication was held.
Not surprisingly, the media left out much of the back story. And politicians like Senator Joe Manchin didn’t utter a peep about all the rallies, protests and arrests that led to the construction of this new, state-of-the art facility at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Manchin sure didn’t mention Ed Wiley’s Herculean efforts as he and Coal River Mountain Watch lead the charge for a new school. If you only read or watch the reports from the media and politicians, one would get the impression that the school was constructed out of the goodness of the hearts of politicians and others who merely came up with a plan and found the money. Voila! A new state-of-the-art school! Nothing could be further from the truth.
So here’s a brief summary of the rest of story. Six years ago, the old school became a center of controversy—a “poster child,” regarding everything bad about coal. Ed Wiley, whose granddaughter attended the school, had a rude awakening when he picked Kayla up from school one day. She was feeling ill and told her grandfather that the school was making kids sick. Ed was well aware of the mountaintop removal, the 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge and dust, the coal silo and processing plant adjacent to the elementary school. He and others at Coal River Mountain Watch began to demand that a new school be built for the community. They met with bureaucrats and elected leaders to no avail.
When their efforts didn’t produce results, Ed and other folks came up with a brilliant campaign. Dubbed “Pennies of Promise,” the campaign’s aim was to generate public support and to draw attention to the issues and impacts of mountaintop removal by collecting pennies. These pennies would be given to the state to aid the funding effort. Their efforts captured the imagination of elementary school kids as far away as New York who collected and sent pennies for a new Marsh Fork Elementary School.
From the Associated Press:Coal River Valley residents launched a fundraising effort to build a new school in Raleigh County by presenting about 90 pounds of pennies and a piece of their mind to Gov. Joe Manchin on Tuesday. The residents say Manchin and his administration have ignored their allegations that Marsh Fork Elementary has a dangerous amount of coal dust in classrooms and that its location below a coal waste dam imperils students. The school abuts Goals Coal, a Massey Energy Co. subsidiary. Kayla Taylor, 11, gave Manchin her green piggy bank and her grandfather, Ed Wiley, laid several cloth bags filled with pennies on the floor of the governor’s reception room at the Capitol before confronting the governor…The bags of pennies, about $460 total, were donated by schoolchildren in New York City who heard about efforts to get a new school, Wiley said. Kayla added her piggy bank and others donated about $50 to the fundraising campaign called “Pennies of Promise.”
OVEC and other groups supported Coal River Mountain Watch and Ed’s campaign by sending out news releases of protests and other direct actions. We also sent Action Alerts like the one found here.
When Ed decided in 2006 to walk the 450 miles from Charleston, WV, to Washington, DC, to talk with Senator Byrd about his concerns, we helped keep the public informed about his whereabouts in daily “Where’s Ed?” posts.
Fast forward to September and Ed arrived in DC, joined at a press conference by numerous supporters after his long, hot, arduous walk.
As a result of Ed’s staggering efforts, Senator Byrd met and prayed with him. But no new school was promised. Byrd indicated that such matters were left to the state. (Really? The esteemed Senator who had building after building and other multi-million dollar complexes in West Virginia named after him because he regularly brought home the bacon, couldn’t shake down the state or feds for the few million dollars it would take? OK. He’s passed on and can’t defend himself, so I’ll let that go for now.)
But Ed and others would not give up. They shook things up by paying then Governor Manchin a few visits in his office at the state Capitol. Who will forget this video where Hillary Hosta was handcuffed and brutally taken away? Many courageous people, including some OVEC folks, were arrested that day. Tears came to my eyes, just watching this again. So the road to building the new Marsh Fork Elementary School was not the walk in the park that present-day politicians and others might have you believe.
Another milestone moment occurred at the school in 2009, when actress Daryl Hannah, climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, former Congressman Ken Hechler, Judy Bonds (deceased) and many others were not only arrested at the mine site, but also were confronted by hundreds of angry miners and their wives. Although Coal River Mountain Watch had reserved the school grounds for a rally, the WV State police allowed the counter-protesters to disrupt and invade the site.
The real turning point came after the tragic Upper Big Branch mining disaster where 29 miners lost their lives as a result of a violent explosion at a Massey Energy mine. The national media flooded into the Coal River Valley, setting up shop on the grounds of the old Marsh Fork Elementary School awaiting word of the miners’ fate. It just so happened that Charles Annenberg, of the Annenberg Foundation was in the Coal River Valley at that time, looking for a project where his foundation could make a difference.
Before he arrived, efforts of the Pennies for Promise campaign had managed to amass a commitment of couple of million dollars from the state and even Massey Energy had agreed to provide a million or so—but that fell short of what was needed. Fortunately, during Mr. Annenberg’s time in the valley, he ran across the good folks of Coal River Mountain Watch. That was when a plan was hatched. Mr. Annenberg would ask for a meeting with the governor to see if the state would match the foundation’s gift of $2.5 million. How could the state and the governor say no?
And so, the deal was done. After six years of struggle, activists like Ed Wiley, young people from Mountain Justice, and too many more to name, could finally declare victory! Endless pressure, endless applied. It took courage and sheer determination and lots of heart.
I can’t help but wonder what positive changes could take place in the Coal River Valley, or anywhere else in West Virginia, if people living in communities actually worked together.