I know all the pro-coal arguments. Coal is a plentiful resource. It helps keep the nation from becoming too dependent on foreign oil. It provides thousands of jobs and spin-off jobs. It aids local economies.
But if coal is so economically beneficial to the state, why is West Virginia the second-poorest state in the nation, despite its wealth of natural resources? If coal helps local economies so much, why are the southern coalfields the most impoverished part of the state?
Would West Virginia be better off if millions of tons of coal didn't lie beneath her mountains? That's a tough, complex question. But I tend to agree with historian John Alexander Williams, who wrote:
"Persons who have studied the impact of coal mining on different societies from Silesia to northern Japan have usually concluded that coal has been a curse upon the land that yielded it. West Virginia is no exception. In its repetitive cycle of boom and bust, its savage exploitation of men and nature, in its seemingly endless series of disasters, the coal industry has brought grief and hardship to all but a small proportion of the people whose lives it has touched."
Who profits from coal? Mostly out-of-state coal companies and their executives. Who pays the price? Miners who die slowly of black lung. The 125 men, women and children of Buffalo Creek who drowned when a coal refuse dam above their hollow failed, releasing a torrent of water. The children of Cabin Creek, who, despite the wealth carted practically from beneath their feet still have no sewer system. The citizens of communities like Blair, now run out of their homes by blasting, dust and flyrock from mountaintop removal jobs above them. Any Mountaineer pained by the site of beautiful ridges ripped out and leveled.
I attended all three days of last week's mine tour. Arch Coal hosted the first two days. The first day involved a heavy dose of progaganda from Dal-Tex manager Mark White. But the second day was a frank, open and complete look at an active job and ongoing reclamation work at Samples mountaintop removal mine on Cabin Creek.
I saw that the workers trying to reclaim this land take pride in what they're doing. The management obviously feels that this method of mining is the only economical way to get at these coal seams, many of which have already been deep-mined. I don't know if that's true, or if there is a better, less destructive way. And I do know that the method is hardly economical if you consider the social and environmental costs the industry mostly passes on to the citizens of West Virginia.
I don't think all coal executives are villains. I definitely don't see coal miners and other industry workers as villains.
But in the last five years, I have seen the damage that coal has wrought in this state - dead streams that flow orange; valleys filled and mountains decapitated and turned into unnatural, grassy plateaus; disabled miners and the widows of miners lost in unnecessary accidents; crumbling roads and decimated communities. It is offensive, deeply offensive.
Someday, maybe West Virginians will reclaim some of the state's lost dignity and elect a governor and a Legislature who will not bow down before Big Coal.