When I was born my family lived in Jewell Valley, a mining community in far Southwestern Virginia. The town was essentially owned by the coal company. The house my parents lived in was provided by the coal company. The company provided electricity and the coal for the stove that heated our home. On payday my father was issued scrip, as seen in the picture. It, too, was furnished by the coal company and good only at the company store down the road from our house. The store carried everything we needed; groceries, clothing, small appliances, toys, bicycles and the list goes on.
It was the era of King Coal, when the only jobs available in Appalachia were in the mines and most men did not have the education or training to break free from a life underground. Such was the case with my father. He was illiterate, could only sign his name. But, he did have the good fortune to be accepted into a program where he learned wiring and to read electrical schematics, which took him above ground for most of the time to work on the coal tipple and other equipment. It was on one of the rare occasions when he had to go into a mine shaft that the accident occurred that took his life.
It would be reassuring to think that things have changed in the 50 years since my father’s death, but they have not. I still have relatives in the mines and in a worse sense coal and chemical companies are still king. The Freedom Industries chemical spill in Charleston, WV, the coal slurry spill by Patriot Coal in Kanawha County, WV and the toxic coal ash spill by Duke Energy that polluted Dan River in North Carolina; these are just the most recent incidences of companies placing profit above the public welfare. Freedom Industries has declared bankruptcy to avoid lawsuit payouts, and Duke Energy will likely pass the cost of clean up on to ratepayers, not shareholders.
The response given most often by these companies in these situations is that they provide jobs and support the economy of the areas in which they operate. But, when does the law of diminishing return kick in as a company’s economic impact is offset by the destruction of the environment and the slow degradation of employees’ lives and health?
I was able to get away from the coal mines, primarily because of the loss of both my parents before the age of 11, when my sister, nine years my senior, took us away. I became the first in my family to graduate college and possibly the only one to go on to earn an M.A. Sadly, I became a black sheep among my relatives, as I did not continue in the family tradition of mining.
I am grateful my daughters will never know that life, but I have told them of it, so they appreciate what they have. But, what will happen to those people still bound to that life? Where will the leaders rise to change the dynamic to give the people of Appalachia more choices and a chance to not just survive, but to thrive?
A professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College who had relatives affected by the Freedom Industries chemical spill in Charleston shared his thoughts on the situation through his blog. He is much more eloquent than I, though he says his post is not cogent. I will just say . . . ‘what he said’: Elemental