By Steve Norris - Supervisor, Environmental Justice Crew
Recently a group from WWC took four vehicles loaded with 450 gallons of water to West Virginia. We also had fundraised $400 fundraised locally, and drove to Boone county, where RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain Peoples Survival) occupies a rundown old storefront. RAMPS has led some gritty and dangerous protests against Mountaintop removal, including an occupation in 2012 of Hobet Mine, the east coat’s largest strip mine. Twenty people who were arrested in that action, including Eva Westheimer, spent up to two weeks in jail. Now RAMPS is helping to coordinate delivery of clean water to their neighbors.
On January 9 a poorly run and regulated chemical company, Freedom Industries. spilled about 10,000 gallons of a toxic chemical (MCHM) into the Elk River, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 people in 9 counties. This company stores and sells chemicals used to process coal from mines. At first FEMA and West Virginia EPA got involved, and the governor declared the pubic water unsafe for all drinking, cooking and even bathing. But within a week or so they pulled out and declared the water safe for everyone except pregnant women and babies under three. And Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy.
Residents however, do not believe the authority’s reassurances. They complain of murky water which smells like licorice or formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and whose odors fill their houses. One young woman with two children talked of lost hair and a rash. No one we met believed that the water was safe. Even Walmart was not selling fresh hot coffee because it had to good water.
So on Saturday morning we set out with RAMPS organizers to deliver with the 450 gallons of water from Warren Wilson and another 800 gallons of bottled water we purchased with our $400.
First stop was Amazing Grace Covenant Church in nearby Seth. We set up water operations in their parking lot. All day people arrived with bottles of their own which we filled after answering the all important question of “where did this water come from?” Residents knew they had to avoid local tap water.
Some of us loaded bottles of water into two cars and went door-to-door in nearby Prenter Holler, a small neighborhood of trailers down the mountain from four coal mines. We knocked on doors, asking people if they wanted free bottled water. We were never turned down. Some were elderly and told us they had a hard time getting out. A couple of people said they were out of fresh clean water entirely and we had shown up just in time.
Later Emily and I set up my truck with its 210 gallon water tank in front of Tamara’s trailer. Tamara is a friendly high-spirited 35 year old woman with a tattoo on her neck. A natural-born community organizer, she roused two daughters and inspired them to go knock on doors up the holler announcing the free water. She also put word out on Facebook. All day long as huge coal trucks rushed headlong down Prenter Road, families drove up in trucks and ATVs, and we filled their bottles with the water which, I explained, came from my spring in North Carolina. “You brought this water all the way from N.C.?” “Yeah, we got here yesterday at midnight.” “Oh, you are so kind. Thanks you for coming all this way.” Seldom in my life have I felt such gratitude.
One older man gave us $5. When I protested he replied, “You’ve gotta take it. Buy yourselves some coffee.” He must not have realized even Walmart was not making coffee with water from the Elk River. One thin 61 year old man stayed long enough to tell us his story: “27 years in the mines, and now I have black lung and a herniated disc.” A teenage high school girl proudly told us: “I get all A’s in school.” She obviously loves school, and would be a teacher’s joy, but I wondered what this extreme poverty and oppression would do to her in ten years.
Everyone seemed dazed about what had happened. No one knows how long the water emergency will last or how they will cope as days and weeks may become months. No one talked about it, and although some people clearly were angry at Freedom Industries or their public officials, no one talked yet about protest. A couple of people explained how until recently they had well water. But the wells became contaminated from coal slurry sludge which the coal companies had pumped into abandoned mines. In time this slurry found its way into ground water and their wells. Then they hooked up to public water, which is now too polluted for human consumption.
Immediately across the road from where we were set up was a fast moving stream with enough water for a small town, and yet, there’s no water for the 200 people in this holler to drink. And what about the animals and the fish, which some complained had already disappeared? We could hear this water singing its way past us as a confederate flag flew above a nearby trailer and we filled people’s gallon jugs with water from far-away N.C..
At the sun began to set and the evening frost moved in, we gathered back in the parking lot of the church to fill a few more jugs and pack up. As we were about to leave a neighbor with a friendly smile stopped by: “Hi. I’m Julia. I want to introduce myself and ask you if you folks oppose coal?” We chatted amicably for several minutes, letting her know that yes some of us had even been arrested protesting against coal. But at the same time she and we avoided a heated argument. She never did say where she stood on the issue. As she left, she waved and smiled inscrutably: “I just wanted to know where you stand.”
Good question. For the last several days I’ve been pondering it. I have no question about coal. It has to go. In N.C. last week a massive spill from a coal ash retainment pond owned by Duke Energy north of Greensboro dumped up to 82 thousand tons of coal ash into the Dan River, which is the public water supply for several downstream communities. The river water and river bank turned grey with the sludge, which contains a witches brew of poisons like arsenic, selenium, lead, and mercury.
At the same time though, my heart breaks for the miners and their families who live in Prenter Holler. Coal is the bedrock of their economy and of their way of life – how can we protest against the way of life of these very poor people. But how can we not challenge what is killing their mountains, and killing their fish, and may, if not contained, threaten much of human civilization?
I don’t know how to answer Julia’s questions, or how to spend the gentleman’s $5, or what to say to the high school girl, or how to bring the fish back, or even how to get a hot coffee at Walmart.