by Sheridan Boyle, guest writer
About 133 miles north of Warren Wilson College sits a humble Virginia town known as Appalachia. Once at a population of 30,000 during the golden age of coal, the town is currently home to a mere 1,839 residents. Though not to the extent it once was, the coal industry continues to have a presence within Appalachia. Whether it is in the “Friends of Coal” bumper stickers that adorn most of the town’s vehicles or the fact that there are active mountaintop removal sites just ten minutes away from the town center, coal is embedded in almost every part of life in Appalachia.
While the town is known for having the world’s second shortest railroad tunnel (known as the Bee Rock Tunnel) it also gained some infamy on August 30, 2004. On this day, an unpermitted bulldozer knocked a 1,000 pound boulder loose from a mining site, causing it to travel 200 feet down the side of the mountain until it eventually crushed a valley home. Jeremy Davidson, a three-year-old boy sleeping within the house, was killed instantly.
This type of incident is not the only risk of mountaintop removal. In fact, one is much more likely to experience asthma, bronchitis, heart failure, and cancer from the mining of coal than Jeremy Davidson’s violent fate. Human health risks are matched by environmental health risks, and the Echo could not possibly afford the number of pages I would need in order to adequately explain the environmental consequences of strip mining and mountaintop removal. With almost all of our college’s energy coming from coal, the injustices caused by this type of energy should be of as much importance to Wilson students as it is to the citizens of Appalachia.
Last Sunday, a group of devoted students departed at 6 a.m. with the Environmental Justice Crew and headed for Southwest Virginia. Rain accompanied the entirety of our three-hour trip, eventually coming to a halt as we arrived at the town’s brick adorned center. Matt Hepler of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) met us at the organization’s one-roomed office and provided us with directions to the RReNEW Collective house. An acronym for “Remembering and ReEnergizing Neighborhoods, Economies, and Watersheds,” RReNEW and SAMS work hand-in-hand within the town of Appalachia to prevent the devastating effects of mining on the community and local ecosystems as well as to alleviate the effects that have already occurred.
We arrived at a small lavender house that comfortably situated itself on a steep hill. Throughout the span of a year, this house would serve as a home to countless activists and RReNEW members, as an office for late-night strategies and action planning, and as an example of just how fixed up a “fixer upper” can get. Next to the house sat a couple of hay-filled garden beds within an ocean of weeds. As part of what we on the EJC call a “rejuvenation” of the crew, we are trying to focus more on providing environmental justice-based service opportunities for students. In hopes of aiding the efforts of RReNEW members in any way possible, this meager garden was one of the reasons we came to Appalachia. We spent the next few hours moving brush piles and old windows that had made their way into the yard as well as purging the garden of extensive amounts of invasive honeysuckle.
After lunch, Matt took us on a tour of the active mine site. The emblem of the tree on our Warren Wilson van as well as the nature of appearance in our group easily established our purpose to the locals, and we received a number of honks —both friendly and not so friendly— as a result. Upon reaching the highest peak along the Kentucky-Virginia border, we looked through the remnant rain-bearing clouds at the land below. To the left were rolling hills, green despite the all-encompassing gray of the day. To the right sat a barren plateau, only ornamented with a few bulldozers and some determined grass patches here and there. We stood with economically useless fragments of coal at our feet —the final signature of the mountain peaks that once were – and looked upon the two possibilities of our future.
The coal industry is a dying industry. Trying to rip all it can from the land while it still has a few fighting breaths, it is a parasite that communities across the Appalachian Mountain range are all too familiar with.