CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Trying to fall asleep recently, the image of green mist flowing through the streets of the Royal City in Cecil B. Demille's classic 1956 film, "The Ten Commandments," would not leave my troubled mind. I wondered if the Angel of Death would pass us by.
OK, so it wasn't the green mist I was really concerned about. I was worried about the chemical spill on the Elk River, some 265 river miles away. As I drifted off, I thought about the people of West Virginia. They have much to think about where their future relationship with the chemical and coal industries are concerned.
Despite the "Wild Wonderful West Virginia" slogan, what I hear about the state's commitment to the environment ranks up there with Bernie Madoff's dedication to his Ponzi scheme clients. Big Coal is such a powerful Big Brother in the politics and social policy of the state that the Department of Environmental Protection (so-called) is either impotent to enforce regulations or in collusion to allow violators to despoil the landscape and the people with reckless abandon. Residents and environmental groups have charged for years that the department charged with protecting the environment is hastening its degradation.
Of course, many residents will disagree. Corporate-backed lobbyists and groups such as The Friends of Coal have worked hard to make sure that the coal industry holds it power over the land (and the people). Publicity campaigns and the effective use of politicians-in-pocket have divided the culture. You're either a "friend of coal" or a tree-hugger who wants to put every coal miner out of work. In every corner of the coal region, these publicity campaigns and the notion of Obama's "War on Coal" has been effective. The result has created a culture in which meaningful debate cannot take place. The politicos give Big Coal whatever it wants and let the citizens argue about it. Not that they do, very much.
"Montani Semper Liberi" is an ironic motto for a people who are hardly free to even talk about the coal industry, lest a donnybrook upset the church picnic or Thanksgiving dinner. The good people of West Virginia have had a wake-up call. Just as the timber industry died before it, the coal industry is, by many accounts, headed for a permanent slowdown. Recent reports show that most of the coal region is still controlled by outsiders. The owners of Big Coal (the outsiders) have a long and successful history of creating discord. Nearly a century ago they sowed discord between whites and blacks (and migrants, too) when unionization threatened their profit margins. They told each party that the other was trying to take their jobs by voting in the union. Politicians claiming that Obama's "War on Coal" is targeting them, only make it worse.
The Ohio River is the water source for over 3 million people. I live across the Ohio River from Cincinnati and, like most river towns, my community draws water from the river. My water district's website reassured us that they were sampling water near their intakes at "regular" intervals and doing everything they could to assure water safety. But still I wondered. The last time Cincinnati had its Tall Stacks Festival, the "Friends of Coal" was a big sponsor. I see "Friends of Coal" license plates on cars all over town. I wondered if any of those plates were on the cars at the water treatment plant nearby.
For now, Mountaineers are not free. I hope the people of West Virginia will take some time to think about their relationship with Big Coal and plan ahead for its reduced significance. If Mountaineers are always free, then let's hope they can recognize corporate overseers for what they are. Let's hope they will not be divided by PR campaigns and political name-calling. Let's hope that they can see what an "anything goes" approach to environmental "protection" has done for them.
Let's hope that the discussion about a brighter future takes place, if only, because so many of us live downstream.
Goebel lives in Fort Thomas, Ky.