In recent years, indictments of extractive industry have come from those who have felt its slow violence. The sadness of West Virginia, its dead-last or worst-as-ﬁrst ranking among the states, stems from the utter defeat its people suffered in the 20th century, resulting in their astonishing lack of control over their environment. Political leaders continually menace West Virginians with a false choice: health or jobs. Julian Martin spent his childhood in hollows and glades surrounded by coal mining. He assailed the vicious destruction of his home and the lies he had been told for decades when he addressed a public hearing on a proposed strip-mining project in 1988:
All my life I’ve watched the destruction of my native state. When I was a little boy 40 years ago, I used to walk up Bull Creek over on Coal River. Bull Creek’s not there anymore. It’s gone. My Uncle Ken used to work timber up in the head of that hollow with a mule, and he did the least amount of destruction you possibly could do. That place was beautiful. It’s not there anymore. It’s just simply gone. It’s been destroyed by a strip mine . . . The ﬁrst time I saw a strip mine it absolutely stunned me into silence. I was sad and I was sick. I couldn’t believe what people could do with a bulldozer to land that used to be beautiful.
Is it wrong to love beauty; is it wrong to love nature? Is it wrong to say that we have only one earth and it will never be reclaimed— you can’t reclaim a destroyed mountain—you can put something back there but you can’t put that topsoil back on—just try it. You never, never can walk through that little glade where the ferns are growing . . .
And if you think strip mining is going to bring jobs, look where they’ve got strip mining in West Virginia and look where they’ve got the most unemployment. Mingo County. McDowell County. You go to the counties where they have strip mining—that’s where they have the worst of everything. They’ve got the worst roads; they’ve got the worst schools; they’ve got the highest unemployment rate. Everything is wrong with those counties. Is that what you want this beautiful place to become? My daddy was a coal miner, and I understand being out of work, okay? I’ve been down that road myself. And I know you’ve got to provide for your family. But I’m saying they’re only giving us two options. They’re saying, “Either starve—or destroy West Virginia.” And surely to God there must be another option.
Citizens of West Virginia confronted that false choice once again on January 9, 2014. A chemical known as MCHM drained from a rusted tank owned by Freedom Industries into the Elk and Kanawha Rivers. Within hours it had entered an intake that fed drinking water to 300,000 people in nine counties. Residents of Charleston and other cities and towns in the valley reported a licorice smell coming from their taps. The spill did not turn into a major public health emergency. No one reported feeling sick; no one went to the hospital. Its signiﬁcance lies in its ordinariness, in its illustration of the routine powerlessness and defeatism that characterizes extractive economies.
Investors had created Freedom Industries just weeks before, after folding four smaller ﬁrms into one. The corporate weave involved other companies owned or managed by Cliff Forrest, including Chemstream and Rosebud Mining, both located in Pennsylvania. The storage tanks that contained the MCHM were 60 years old, suggesting a long-standing industrial site that had changed hands over and over again without much thought for safety. Nothing could be more ordinary than the licorice-smelling substance itself, 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol. It’s an alcohol used in froth ﬂotation. It creates bubbles that bring ﬁne particles to the surface where they can be captured. In a sense, froth ﬂotation created the minerals industry by enabling companies to mine low-quality veins at a proﬁt.
But no one had analyzed the toxicity of MCHM in humans. Eastman, the manufacturer, performed the only study in 1998. They found some evidence of liver and kidney damage in rats at relatively low levels, concluding a low toxicity. (All the test rats died after consuming higher levels.) But Eastman’s scientists didn’t follow the surviving rats for more than six weeks. The study says nothing about the chemical’s chronic effects, but we know something about these risks from other lingering sources of disease—like radiation and DDT. The implications for public health years after exposure (or after years of continual exposure) are what matter.
The irony of the rusted tank is that its contents would have entered the environment anyway, though at a slower rate and lower concentrations. After its job is done, MCHM ends up in decant ponds where it seeps into rivers and aquifers. Coal mining is intimate with its environment, although companies repeatedly deny that their catchment systems fail (even after spectacular failures). In 1972, a slurry dam on Buffalo Creek owned by Pittston Coal Company released a 30-foot-high magma-like wall of coal sludge that killed 125 people, injured over 1,000, and left 4,000 homeless. Another slurry pond, owned by the Kingston Fossil Plant on the Clinch River in Tennessee, broke its dike in 2008, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of toxic ash. The Environmental Protection Agency lists 95 Superfund Sites in the state, but a never-to-be-known number of obscure seepages and furtive leaks have saturated the public with untested chemicals. Said one lawyer who ﬁled a class-action suit in federal court against the companies involved in the 2014 spill, “There are so many chemicals out there that are not properly characterized. It’s only after they dump it in our water and it smells like licorice that we know about it.”
“Surely to God,” said Julian Martin, “there must be another option.” But West Virginia’s political leadership is unlikely to come up with one. During his last term in ofﬁce, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia made his irrelevance irrefutable when he whimpered to National Public Radio a month after the spill, “Industries win, people lose. It’s an old formula.” If a U.S. senator admits his helplessness to discipline or regulate the coal industry, then the people have no representation. A year earlier, the state’s three-member House delegation clariﬁed their constituency. They introduced the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act of 2013. The bill purported to regulate highly toxic slurry ponds and coal ash impoundment toward the “protection of health and environment.” But its true purpose was to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from managing these very sites. Before she became a U.S. senator, Representative Shelley Moore Capito claimed to have saved citizens from the octopus of government. “Many West Virginians have already been laid off as a result of the EPA’s burdensome regulations, and this legislation will play a key role in preventing further job loss.” But the bill makes no mention of jobs, and there’s no reason to think that it would have generated employment. It was a gift to industry parading as reform. It passed in the House but failed in the Senate.
Another abdication of leadership followed the Freedom Industries leak. In 2014, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a law giving the secretary of environmental protection authority to regulate chemical holding tanks. The law does not set standards but gives that authority to the Department of Environmental Protection. It does set penalties, including a ﬁne of $25,000 for every day that the owner of a chemical tank does not comply. The coal industry assailed the law. A year later, after meetings with industry attorneys, the House of Delegates scaled it back. The Senate passed its own version, and the governor signed the ﬁnal bill. The new law lowers safety standards for certain tanks, denies the public information about what’s inside the tanks, and reduces the number of inspections. It exempts 36,000 tanks from regulation altogether. Five Republicans in the House of Delegates voted in opposition to the bill, along with 16 Democrats. With some exceptions, West Virginia’s elected representatives have shown a striking refusal to legislate for the good and welfare of their citizens.
West Virginia’s congressional delegation is equally concerned about their poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Concerned, that is, that the United States spends too much on them. In 2013, Congress approved a farm bill that included an $8.7 billion reduction in the Subsidized Nutrition Assistance Program. That year, 16 percent of West Virginia households received SNAP beneﬁts, a rate higher than the national average. All three members of the House voted in favor. Evan Jenkins, a Republican elected in 2015 from the third district (which includes McDowell County), voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and weaken clean-air regulations. Whose interests do these positions serve? Not those of the state’s struggling families. After all, what does West Virginia have to show for the political inﬂuence of coal mining throughout the last century? The worst of everything. That’s how Julian Martin described it. The worst schools, roads, health, environment, and unemployment.
Another lifelong resident delivered a jeremiad to those members of Congress and their peers in the House of Delegates. Eric Waggoner teaches English at West Virginia Wesleyan University. In response to the Freedom Industries spill, he published an article in The Huffington Post.
To hell with every greedhead operator who ﬂocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had, but wanted us to go underground and get it for you. To hell with you for . . . treating the people you found here like just another material resource— suitable for exploiting and using up, and discarding when they’d outlived their usefulness. To hell with you for rigging the game so that those wages were paid in currency that was worthless everywhere but at the company store, so that all you did was let the workers hold it for a while, before they went into debt they couldn’t get out of.
To hell with you all for continuing, as coal became chemical, to exploit the lax, poorly-enforced safety regulations here, so that you could do your business in the cheapest manner possible by shortcutting the health and quality of life not only of your workers, but of everybody who lives here. To hell with every operator who ever referred to West Virginians as “our neighbors.”
To hell with every single screw-job elected ofﬁcial and politico under whose watch it all went on, who helped write those lax regulations and then turned away when even those weren’t followed. To hell with you all, who were supposed to be stewards of the public interest, and who sold us out for money, for political power. To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us.
And, as long as I’m roundhouse damning everyone . . . To hell with all of my fellow West Virginians who bought so deeply into the idea of avoidable personal risk and constant sacriﬁce as an honorable condition under which to live, that they turned that condition into a culture of perverted, twisted pride and self-righteousness, to be celebrated and defended against outsiders.
To hell with that insular, xenophobic pathology. To hell with everyone whose only take-away from every story about every explosion, every leak, every mine collapse, is some vague and idiotic vanity in the continued endurance of West Virginians under adverse, sometimes killing circumstances. To hell with everyone everywhere who ever mistook suffering for honor, and who ever taught that to their kids. There’s nothing honorable about suffering. Nothing.
Waggoner implies a connection between a culture of self-sacriﬁce and elected ofﬁcials with contempt for the people. As long as West Virginians continue to blame themselves for everything and yield their power as citizens, nothing will improve.
A new formula is needed. During President Barack Obama’s two terms in ofﬁce, supporters of the coal industry accused him of waging a “war on coal.” They were right, at least in one sense. Obama thought of coal as an egregious source of atmospheric carbon dioxide and an insecure basis for the economy of Appalachia. He listened to scientists and activists who argued that fossilized carbon must remain buried to prevent rising sea levels, extraordinary drought, and disrupted agriculture, leading to the forced migration of millions of people. In 2015, Obama announced that the EPA would regulate carbon dioxide emissions. The United States pledged reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions as part of the international agreement reached by 196 countries meeting in Paris during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2016.
Regulation does affect the proﬁtability of the coal industry. But coal is in decline for other reasons. Natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide as coal. It’s less expensive, easier to extract, and can be moved around for a lower cost. By 2035, gas will have overtaken coal as the dominant fuel for generating electricity. The greatest job killers in coal country are the mining companies themselves. Their changeover to mountaintop removal resulted in thousands of unemployed workers. But even by slashing labor costs, the industry cannot save itself. Alpha Natural Resources, the nation’s second-largest coal company, ﬁled for federal protection against creditors in 2015. It has shed 6,500 employees and closed 80 mines since 2011. Of the top 13 most productive mines in the United States, not one is located in Appalachia. West Virginia delivered about 113 million tons in 2013, down 6 percent in one year. Between 2012 and 2015, deliveries fell by 18 percent.
Coal companies can walk away from their gutted wastes and reorganize or rebrand themselves as natural gas drillers. Unemployed coal miners have fewer options. Some made $70,000 a year toward the end of their employment, the result of fewer and more highly skilled jobs. Some will ﬁnd jobs in fracking, others in county maintenance crews, and others in big-box retail. The implosion of coal has emptied towns of small businesses. A few years ago, in Blueﬁeld, West Virginia, I found no locally owned restaurants. The largest business in town was a pawnshop. The shelves in the grocery store were sparse. The majority of counties bracing eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and southern West Virginia qualify as food deserts—where markets that sell fresh fruits and vegetables are more than 20 miles away or where residents lack the means to travel 10 miles to go shopping. Even big-box retailers might not survive. In 2016, the Walmart in McDowell closed. One hundred forty people lost their jobs, but that’s not the worst of it. Walmart contributed to a food pantry that fed 11,000 people.
“Their political representatives will fail them, to the highest ofﬁce, promising them greater economic security but delivering only retail jobs with inferior health insurance.”
Ghost towns dot the state. Since 1950, the number of people living in West Virginia has fallen 40 percent. Without income from property taxes, county governments cannot survive, but in the poorest places these small bureaucracies are often the largest employers. When they cease to function, so do essential services like garbage collection, police protection, ﬁre and rescue, and county hospitals. In parts of West Virginia, 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. Over 30 percent of African-Americans survive below that line, as do 30 percent of children under the age of ﬁve. Just as stunning, 8 percent of West Virginians with paying jobs might not eat three times a day or have an adequate place to live. The median household in the United States earns about $50,000 a year. In more than half of West Virginia’s 55 counties, households report incomes under the national median. A typical family of four in Marion County lives on $22,000.
What could happen? The pessimistic scenario is not difﬁcult to imagine. There is little reason to believe that Apple or Intel or any other tech company will emerge as a savior. Even at the existing minimum wage, American workers are more expensive than the Chinese or Vietnamese laborers who earn a few dollars a day. Their political representatives will fail them, to the highest ofﬁce, promising them greater economic security but delivering only retail jobs with inferior health insurance. People will leave the mountains, as they always have. Maybe no one should waste much time thinking about what the unemployed will do to survive. They’ll just go south. But like Scotts Run circa 1932, there will be thousands who lack the cash to pay for a moving van or a tank of gas. They’ll be destitute, stuck in place. This is already happening.
Optimism always requires greater effort. If our sense of the possible doesn’t contain an element of the unlikely, then it’s only a compromise with what is. There can be no improvement without a viable political identity. This would require the white working class of the southern mountains to stop identifying their interests with those of the rich and powerful, a position that leaves them poorer and more powerless than they have ever been. They should also consider abandoning false and imploding racial distinctions. Instead of telling a story about themselves that separates them from African-Americans, American Indians, and all those who have been dispossessed, they could tell a story about their common predicament. They could organize for true democracy, as they once did. Nearly everything that the industrial workers of Appalachia have ever gained (the eight-hour work- day, the Wagner Act, health and retirement beneﬁts, and higher wages) came from collective politics. It came, in other words, from people who refused to be divided by imaginary differences.
It is difﬁcult to ﬁnd anything Appalachians have gained by voting for Republicans. Yet a majority in every county in West Virginia voted for Donald Trump in 2016. His promise to revitalize the coal industry lacks a footing in reality. Sensing this, one voter gave him a desperate endorsement, saying, “He’s the only shot we got.” If Trump studies West Virginia’s congressional delegation, he might conclude that he doesn’t need to do very much. But the people can do better than that. They can make their representatives justify the trust placed in them. They can demand more of their government. They can assert a right to land and livelihood and reparations from the corporations that used and abused them for so long. Maybe that can be the basis for a positive political identity.
From Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Steven Stoll.