POST about Walt Williams commentary in State Journal

Elisa Young

Being from Ohio, The State Journal doesn’t usually cross the into my line of vision, but when this article was sent to me, I read it and I’d like to respond.

It must have been a Herculean effort to attempt to squeeze every facet of coal from every impacted coalfield community into a 1-1/2 hour setting, but I think MariLynn and Phyllis managed to achieve their original goal – to get coal out of the closet into the light of day by people telling their own stories without the benefit of outside interpretation – to get folks to open up and talk about it. You know what happens when you squeeze coal hard enough – it becomes a diamond. Coal Country and her makers is a gem.

While they may not have squeezed in pro-coal interviews specifically from my community, neither were all the concerns and impacts. The dynamics of both are nearly identical to what was pieced together from the Southern Appalachian collective. As much as I hate it, coal is a common denominator. If it had been MariLynn’s goal to focus on one community’s voice, she could have stayed here in Meigs County and never budged. We are a microcosm of coal legacy issues: Mining, processing, transportation, combustion, solid waste. On top of this, the proliferation of experimental “clean coal” proposals are now concentrated here, the impacts of which will not be fully known for some time. In 2006, I received an international women’s award from the Women of Peace Power Foundation for giving “True Cost of Coal Tours” through Ohio and West Virginia to educate people about the human costs inherent to coal extraction and consumption, even though the newspaper here would not print it. It used to take 2 days to walk people through the coal cycle. Because of the concentration of coal industry proposals, it now takes less than 2 hours. Every aspect of this devastating cycle is now concentrated in our own community.

Last year I went to Maria Lambert’s community to help them get heavy metal hair sample analysis started to push for a human health study after I learned that their water was unfit to drink, attributed to long-term effects of coal waste disposal called “sludge injection.” When I’d approached the chief engineer of the proposed coal mine in our own community (same engineer who designed the mess behind Maria Gunnoe’s home in Boone County, WV) to express concerns about the stability of the proposed coal waste impoundment pointed toward our village (Racine, Ohio), he assured me we wouldn’t have to worry about that because instead of storing the waste in above ground impoundments, after the first 5 years they would do sludge injection into the abandoned mines as they went – same as what had happened in Maria (Lambert’s) community. Do they really think we are so out of touch that we don’t know what’s happening to our neighbors across the river? That river is not a dividing line, it’s a connection.

So here we are, talking.

First, thank you for allowing that my voice deserved to be heard. In fact I do fall into the minority of those willing to speak out on concerns about whether another 50 years of coal extraction and consumption is in our best interest. Like most coalfield communities, we suffer from high poverty and unemployment rates. The first coal mine opened here in 1815 – nearly 200 years ago. My great-great grandfather managed mines here for 43 years. The original name of Pomeroy was “Coal Bank,” and my family on my grandma’s side lived in an adjacent Welsh settlement called “Minersville.” If coal equals jobs and we’ve had nearly 200 years of it, where is the prosperity? Where are these jobs?

From what I have experienced, being in the minority of those willing to speak out does not necessarily equate with being in the minority when it comes to having concerns about increasing the coal-dependent nature of our economy and what that means to our health, environment, and future economic vitality.

I have spoken with many people in the county, too. The first time almost got me arrested. I was knocking door-to-door asking people if they were aware that we were about to become the largest concentration of power plants in the nation, if they had concerns, and would they like to talk about it?

The mayor tracked us down, followed us, and told us if we did not stop immediately he would have us arrested. I asked what for and he said we were soliciting without a permit. I explained that we were not soliciting – we were asking how people felt and if they had concerns. He told me that was soliciting and there was a law against it. I asked to see a copy of that ordinance and he said no, that it was locked in his desk back at the village hall, but if we did not stop immediately he’d have us arrested.

Let me be clear – I am not an environmentalist, was not running for political office or soliciting funds, I am a concerned citizen wanting to talk with others in the community about coal. That’s all. Talk. That was a wakeup call to me how addicted we are to coal. We cannot even talk about these monsters squatting in the middle of the room.

The most telling moment in Coal Country for me wasn’t when MariLynn’s camera crew crossed the state line, it was when an out-of-state coal company headquartered in Beckley, West Virginia did and the way we were treated for questioning it, not that there was room for that in the final cut, either:

I do take exception to people putting words in my mouth.

I did not say “Do we take the jobs or the lung cancer,” I said cancer. Period. This is a sparsely populated, rural farming community, yet In less than a mile radius going out one direction from my farm, I lost a neighbor to lung cancer (who never smoked), her husband to respiratory problems, their neighbor to brain cancer. Another one did have a lung transplant, but he smoked.

Going the other direction down the road, one had to have chelation therapy to remove heavy metals from her system, the next house down died of throat cancer (didn’t smoke), the next house down died of a rare form of breast cancer (they later found she had brain tumors), multiple myeloma, one to a pre-leukemic condition, one to colon cancer, and another who moved away developed cancer shortly after. This is just immediately around me. None of them smoked. I lost my dog, Charlie, to cancer, and I have multiple neighbors who have also lost pets and livestock, as well as family members to cancer. People are telling me deer being hunted here are also chalk full of cancer. I asked an epidemiologist down when I saw how many people were disappearing before my eyes, and he said our cancer rates were about double of what he would expect to find based on national averages – especially surprising considering we are NOT a heavily populated urban area suffering from a diverse concentration of carcinogens.

When I filed my appeal against AMP Ohio, I’d never been in a courtroom before, let alone attempted to be an attorney due to lack of access to legal representation. I was in shock. I remember the word “break cost” flying around the room between the coal industry and the environmentalists. I hadn’t heard that term before, so when it was my turn to clear my throat and ask some questions, I asked the witness to go over that “break cost” thing again. He said it was a term or concept that meant a power plant would be too expensive to build and gets abandoned for economic reasons.

So I asked him if they’d done a human health study. He said no. I asked if they were going to. He said no. I asked him why and he said it wouldn’t affect people’s health that way. Whoa Nellie. I asked him if he had a concept like break cost that applied to human life. He claimed he did not understand what I meant. I clarified that what I was asking him was how many people would need to die, statistically speaking, for that power plant to be considered too expensive to build and be abandoned. How many Meigs County residents does it take to generate a cheap kilowatt of coal-fired electricity? What are they worth? He told me no, they did not have a concept for that.

A short time ago, I saw this chart:

The EPA likes to keep the death rate down to 1:100,000 when issuing a permit to pollute.

If you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day (like Mr. Williams pointed out), it raises the risk to 100:100,000.

If you are exposed to coal combustion waste, it raises the death rate to 900:100,000.

The coal industry has dumped coal combustion waste on our roads, lined our kid’s running tracks with it, used it for fill, to make cattle feeders, cinder blocks, roofing shingles, asphalt, gypsum board, and God knows what else with it. AMP wants to build a fertilizer factory and sprinkle it directly on our food chain.

Why would someone assume that lung cancer is the only cancer we are disproportionately suffering from or that cigarettes are the cause, when coal combustion waste is the equivalent of a 9-pack-a-day habit? Let alone the second-hand smoke stacks that are aimed at us. Our air quality was recently ranked in the top third percentile for the worst air quality in the nation based on volatile organic compounds.

Please do not lump me in the category of environmentalists who want more coal, just cleaner and safer.

In my opinion, we could not set the bar lower. I believe with every fiber of my being that if we dig the hole deeper instead of creating jobs NOW in our communities that are most vulnerable to coal industry expansion before coal is completely gone or global warming hits (let alone what the pollution is doing to us at ground zero) that we are fool-heartedly squandering our children’s future.

Just because coal is all we’ve ever had, does not mean that it’s all we can ever be. I refuse have coal define me or my community. Toss your stereotypes in the trash. Appalachians are some of the most resilient, self-sacrificing, generous, intelligent people you will find anywhere on this planet. If anyone can take it on to be leaders in this energy revolution, it’s us. I refuse to be victimized by a dying industry dependent on a polluting, finite, fossil fuel resource that threatens our children’s future, our lives, and the very future of the planet we call home.

Before we were threatened with arrest, we asked one direct question on our listening project. If you had a choice between having another power plant here for you or your children to work at, or an opportunity to work with non-polluting, renewable energy development, which would you choose. Given an actual choice, not theoreticals, 100% of the people we asked chose the latter.

Thanks, MariLynn. For getting us talking.

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