By Nicole Holstein, Intern, Earth Day Network
Having grown up in West Virginia, I can trace my family history back to the settling of the land in the late 17th century – before West Virginia coal mining helped fuel the U.S. as an industrial nation and secured its status as a world power. The coal industry was our “friend,” fueling our economy, our nation and our families.
However, that was before we knew the dangers of coal to our miners, our community and our environment — and before the coal industry replaced conventional strip mining with a more dangerous practice called mountaintop removal (MTR).
Coal companies increasingly use MTR because it is cheaper, easier, and faster but they neglect the fact that MTR is highly damaging for the environment and local populations. The MTR process of using explosives to “decapitate” the mountains is very dangerous for the ecosystems and local communities who live nearby, as they face pollution, fly rock and other threats to their health.
Marsh Fork Elementary School, for example, sits 400 yards down slope of a leaking earthen impoundment that holds back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge, and adjacent to their school is a coal silo, from which dust continuously flies. Proximity to these toxins is particularly dangerous for children and in 2005, 80% of students at Marsh Fork experienced headaches or nausea, 34% had learning difficulties and 91% suffered from asthma, bronchitis or other respiratory problems – and three teachers died of brain cancer. And then there’s the impending danger of being engulfed by toxic coal sludge if the impoundment fails.
Although it took six years, the local community of Marsh Fork Elementary demanded – and received — a new school building away from coal sludge and explosions. And, the school board ensured that the new Marsh Fork Elementary building would be energy efficient, including day lighting, motion occupancy and an energy efficient HVAC system.
However, despite the success of Marsh Fork, many other schools and homes are still in danger from MTR.
The fight to save communities and the natural environment from the dangers and destruction of MTR has waged throughout Appalachia for years with great difficulty, because coal interests are intertwined with the local economy and political structure.
But community action is a powerful force that has spurred change in the past, moving our country past various injustices and dangers from tobacco to toxic waste. We know our communities can take on “Big Coal” and win eventually. We can and we must move off of coal and all fossil fuels to meet our energy needs.
The CEO and Executive Director of the US Conference of Mayors, Tom Cochran rallied local communities to take energy matters into their own hands at this past weekend’s annual ESCM meeting: “As the nation seeks greater energy independence and energy security, mayors are certain that strong local action—from deploying new clean energy technologies and efficiency measures to raising public awareness about the benefits of these investments—is needed to confront these challenges successfully.”
As they did at Marsh Fork Elementary School, we need to instill in our children a respect and love for the environment, and teach them how to be engaged citizens – and how they can fight back to protect themselves against powerful but dangerous interests.
KidsLoveMountains.org is holding a writing contest called “Words for Mountains.” Students can submit letters to their congressperson, poems or personal stories about MTR. The best submissions will be posted on the website. To learn more about MTR, please also download lesson plans from the Earth Day Network Education Library Archive about this topic.
“Clean Energy Solutions for America’s Cities.”USGovs.org. United States Conference of Mayors, 2011. Web. 20 Jun 2011.http://usmayors.org/cleanenergy/report.pdf.