Winds of Change Newsletter, December 2006 See sidebar for table of contents
An Open Letter to WV Gov. Joe Manchin
Governor Joe Manchin
Dear Governor Manchin:
West Virginia's dirty coal secret is spilling out faster than a sludge dam failure. It's out beyond the state's borders. It's out through excellent magazine features on the national and international level. It's out because of the efforts of informed and dedicated members of state, regional and national environmental groups.
It's out because of brave individuals who have taken action after their state and federal officials have hidden in the pockets of the coal barons for better than a century, allowing these exploiters to destroy the land, the culture, the health and the spirit of hundreds of thousands of people.
Enclosed are three of the many photos I took in southern West Virginia this past spring. Please study these carefully, and remember them each time you lay your head down at night.
I want you to study my portrait of Jimmy Weekley. Coal mining broke his body, but not his spirit. Jimmy is the last remaining resident of his hollow near Blair; a hollow whose stream runs clean and clear- for now. The aliens are approaching Jimmy's home of 66 years, as they are approaching other mountain communities, to destroy the forests and mountains that have protected and nourished West Virginia highlanders for upwards of two hundred fifty years, and native Americans before them.
I've enclosed a separate sheet containing some of Jimmy's remarks.
I want you to study and remember my photo of the Ash Branch of Paint Creek. It represents a beautiful, inspiring and life-giving piece of nature- for now. But the aliens have their sights on this area too. Sadly, many coal country residents know such streams only in their memories.
I want you to study and remember my photo of Massey Energy's coal silo towering over Marsh Fork Elementary School. I also want you to know of the woman who approached me while I was making this photograph, and who said I shouldn't be there. She was apparently more afraid of what would happen to her and her family if Massey discovered that they didn't chase me off, than of how coal dust from Massey's facility is poisoning their children and their teachers, inside the school. She must be more afraid of crossing Massey than she is of the crushing wall of poisonous water which will surge through the school if the earthen dam above it gives way. This is about their children, for God's sake. Parents' natural instinct is to protect their children. The school was there first! These folks have been oppressed by the coal companies and betrayed on every level and at every turn by their own government for so long, that they don't realize that parents anywhere else would be outraged, and demand that such a clear danger as the coal treatment plant be moved out immediately. It's unlikely that such a facility, or the pond, would be placed near a school in the first place. Now, the more concerned parents have no choice but to raise money on their own to build a new school. And Massey will pay nothing for the illness, stress and fear they have caused.
I want you to look at these photos and ask yourself why you are not doing everything in your considerable power to stand up for the residents of West Virginia, and get Massey and their kind out of the business of poisoning children and their land.
This past April, I spent most of a day on Blair Mountain. Part of this extensive topography has been forever desecrated by mountaintop removal mining. However, much of it remains relatively pristine, with clean cool streams, flowing through hardwood forests. I was fortunate enough to photograph some of these latter scenes. How long will they remain this way? I also photographed an Arch Coal site that has been closed since 1999. After seven years, it has nothing but non-native grass.
A mountaintop removal site on Cazy Mountain, in Boone County, was "reclaimed" 22 years ago. It sprouts nothing but non-native grass, and a few thin, nasty-looking, non-native shrubs. Where is the earth-cooling hardwood forest? Where is the native ginseng that mountaineers have always been able to dig to sell and use? Where are the deer, the turkeys, the many species of songbirds, small mammals and other animals? Where are the clean, swift-flowing streams and their native trout? Where is life-giving soil? Where is life?
During my weeklong stay, I photographed and witnessed enough to know that everything I'd read and heard about the problems in this region is worse when viewed up close. Add to all the other woes caused by mountaintop removal mining the visibly-obvious fact that these sites help increase global warming.
You may know that Pennsylvania, which has contributed much coal to this nation, and much coal-related pollution and human misery, now generates more wind power than any other state east of the Mississippi. That's only the beginning. Pennsylvania is upping the ante with wind power, placing a facility in the coal country of Cambria County. Residents will be able to continue their legacy of providing energy, but now this will be clean energy. It won't kill and maim workers by explosion, by mine collapse, by black lung. It won't foul our streams or contribute to acid rain, or to mercury poisoning. It won't require that people mow down forests, and blow up mountains which have stood for millions of years. Wind and solar power will be a ticket to freedom, to real social and economic progress and promise.
But what about West Virginia, which has the opportunity to do much the same? The state over which you preside as chief executive, is now treating potential wind generation projects as the enemy, or something that needs more study. How dare you allow the suffocation of progress.
Are wind farms especially scenic? No, but they are visions of hope. Do they cripple thousands of workers, spew toxic waste into the air and water? No. Do they destroy the health and culture of the residents? No. Can they be dismantled and the sites returned to their natural states if better energy technology comes along? They certainly can.
Last year, our photography business took us to Tuscany, Italy. In one area, we noticed a network of pipes and related hardware stretching out near ground level. The odor of sulfur was evident. Our friends informed us that this system transports geothermal energy from hot springs in the region; that the steam derived from the earth helps generate enough electricity to completely power some small towns in the area.
Was the system pretty? Not especially. Is mountaintop removal pretty? Is a coal treatment facility or a coal-fired power plant pretty? I think you know the answers. Do the benefits of geothermal power and wind power outweigh the inconveniences? Can the benefits of any kind of coal mining, especially mountaintop removal, barely approach the misery and the environmental, health and economic plight they cause? You know those answers, too.
In southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, descendants of the proudest, most independent and most patriotic of all American populations are now slaves in their own land. They are victims of true terrorism committed by American corporations on American soil, with the blessing of their own governments. Residents outside the coal fields are learning that basic human rights are being violated wholesale in your state. When individuals stand up for what is right, and are repaid by physical threats and vandalism, their vehicles tampered with, their pets killed; when their land, and their water are poisoned, and corporate officials can dismiss these floods as "acts of God," and can get away with it; when long-time residents are forced off their land, and their health sacrificed on the altar of short-term profit, that's human rights abuse; that's terrorism.
But, as I said governor, the secret is out, and Massey can't put it back. Arch Coal and all the other companies that have raped the land and the people of the southern Appalachians for a century, can't put it back. People in Pennsylvania are getting the story. People in California, in Nebraska, in England, all over Europe and the rest of the world are getting the story.
Since no one can shove the secret back into it's dirty bag, you have an opportunity to do what's right for your fellow West Virginians-- the ones who are bravely doing what is right, the ones who are yet afraid to stand up, for fear of economic and physical retribution, the ones who don't know how free people take charge of their lives, and the ones yet to be born. You can do what's right and help abolish mountaintop removal mining.
We all know that coal mining, especially mountaintop removal mining, is not about providing energy, or any such patriotic-sounding smokescreen. It's about sociopaths going where the laws are lax, non-existent or poorly-enforced, because lax laws and non-enforcement of decent laws allow these exploiters to make immense sums of money, and pass on the real environmental, social and financial cost of coal mining to the public. We also know that much of the coal mining companies' land and mineral rights were obtained through deception, and worse. And, regardless of how they obtained those "rights," they have no right to commit wholesale destruction of mountains, forests, streams, human health and spirit.
Theodore Roosevelt probably said it best. "Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it."
A former professor of well-known photographer Larry Ulrich also observed, "If you don't believe in nature as a divine force, you won't go to hell, you live in one."
Governor Manchin, on this issue, you can either work for the people, or you can be in the hands of the coal companies. You cannot have it both ways. I believe you can do the right thing. If it costs you your job, you'll still have done the right thing. Your courage will open new doors. You'll be able to look at these photographs, and into the eyes of your fellow West Virginians, and sleep well. The damage that has been done and is being done will last for thousands of years, and through hundreds of generations. All of those generations will look back on what has been done in the past thirty years and say, "Who could have let this happen?" Please don't be one of those who lets this happen. Don't let them blame it on God. Do you think that God would create something as beautiful and as loving as the mountains and forests of West Virginia, and destroy them and the people who have lived as one with the land? You know the answer.