September 26, 2005
Contacts: Bo Webb (304) 854-2182, 304-854-2631 / Vernon Haltom (304) 222-1630
Citizens' group awaits Governor's Marsh Fork Elementary response
Whitesville, W.Va.-A group of citizens asked Governor Joe Manchin in June to investigate health concerns at Marsh Fork Elementary School due to Massey Energy's coal operations next door. A month after school began, they are still awaiting an investigation. Now they have sent him a letter asking him to fulfill his promises.
"In June, we presented our concerns for the children at Marsh Fork Elementary," said Bo Webb of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW). "A week later, the Department of Environmental Protection approved a second coal silo next to the school. It took a reporter to show the DEP that the silo was outside Massey's permit boundary." The DEP then revoked the permit for the second silo in a case that Massey is appealing to the state Surface Mine Board.
On July 5, Ed Wiley, whose granddaughter attends the school, began a sit-in on the State Capitol steps. Manchin met with Wiley and stated his concern for the children, and on July 7 the group met with Manchin's staff. "The Department of Health and Human Resources representative seemed genuinely concerned, but now they tell us the DHHR doesn't have the resources to do a health survey." An unofficial survey conducted by Coal River Mountain Watch showed that over half of those surveyed whose children attended the school reported health problems with their children. The problems included asthma, bronchitis, nosebleeds, and headaches.
On July 7 and again on August 25, the Department of Education conducted what it called an "air quality investigation." "We expected that, since the school is just next door to a coal silo and preparation plant, the DOE would find out how much and what kinds of dust and chemicals are in the air that the kids breathe every day," said Vernon Haltom of CRMW, who accompanied the DOE representatives. "They did neither. Instead, they said the air was okay without any standard or reference on which to base that judgment."
"If I can find coal dust on the playground equipment, hand rails, and air vents, it must be in the air," said Sarah Haltom of CRMW. "This so-called investigation was not the level of concern we expected."
"We're asking for a real, independent investigation," said Webb. "What we've seen so far is baloney. If our state can give half a million dollars to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, it can afford to assure our children's health and safety. These children are not a dead issue." On September 1, the group delivered ten pounds of bologna to Manchin's office as a way of symbolizing their view of the so-called investigation.
Text of letter follows
Office of the Governor
Dear Governor Manchin,
On June 22, 2005, several Coal River Valley residents and I met with you in your office to express our concerns for the well being of the children and teachers at Marsh Fork Elementary School. We gave you information supporting our cause for concern, including photos of the very active and massive coal operation next to and above the school. We gave you names of some parents with children coming home from the school with breathing difficulties, sore throats, headaches, and other health problems, including a seventeen-year-old who had attended the school and died from ovarian cancer, another seventeen-year-old former student who was fighting ovarian cancer, three teachers who had died from cancer in the past six years, and yet another who is currently fighting cancer. We gave you flyover photos of the coal operation and its close proximity to the school. We gave you taped video of mothers with very sick children who attend the school. We expressed our concerns about the preparation plant behind the school and the chemicals that we suspect are on the grass in the playground and inside the school, including coal dust from the coal silo a mere 200 feet from the school. We showed you other photos of the 1849 acre surface mine site directly above the toxic sludge dam that hovers over the school, adding surface runoff sediment to the dam. We reminded you of the Buffalo Creek disaster. You looked me square in the eye and asked for my home phone number stating that you would assemble a "team" and get back to me within 5-7 days. We never heard back from you, but we did discover that on June 29th, a short seven days later that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection under the direction of your chosen department leader, Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer, issued a permit to Goals Coal Company to add yet another coal loading silo behind the school.
This prompted a sit-in on the Capitol steps on July 5th by Mr. Ed Wiley, the grandfather of a student at the school. You met with Mr. Wiley and assured him that you would look into the safety of the children. You made numerous statements to the press that day about your real concerns for the children and how their safety was of the utmost importance to you. We then had a meeting later that week with your chief of staff, your legal council, the state school board, the WV DEP, and the WVDHHR. We again expressed our cause for concern, expecting that by your order and direction, these agencies would take action.
In good faith we waited, thinking they were all working for the health and safety of the children. But what really came out of this meeting was nothing more than a sham. The state school board checked the air filters at the school, made some recommendations, and declared the school safe. No one checked for coal dust or any type of particulate chemical matter. The WVDHHR did nothing other than tell me they did not have the resources or personnel to conduct a health study of the students and/or community, and the survey that we had conducted was not useful to them. Your promise of a thorough investigation has not been delivered. With all due respect to Mr. Elswick and the state school board, he is either not qualified to conduct an air quality and soil study, or it is not in his job description. This is not acceptable and does not meet your promise to make sure the kids are in a safe environment.
If you are truly serious about your expressed concerns, you need to understand the limits of your own agencies. For instance, I find it absolutely amazing that the WVDHHR does not have the resources to conduct a health study. A state that depends on an industry that has a legacy associated with black lung and many other serious health issues should have an effective health department. Or perhaps it just comes down to a matter of discrimination. After all, the nation has been led to believe that people living in the hollers of the West Virginia coalfields are nothing more than a bunch of ignorant subhuman inbred hillbillies.
Nevertheless, we are requesting that you seek an independent analysis of the soil and air quality at the school, both inside and out. We are requesting that an independent private company be hired to conduct this study, and not be directed or hindered in any way with their investigation and analysis. We also request that this company meet our approval before being hired.
We recognize the fact that this will not be a simple inexpensive test such as Mr. Elswick conducted. We remind you that millions upon millions of dollars leave the Coal River Valley each year by way of coal trains and coal trucks. None of that money is reinvested in our community, yet your office can see fit to award the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine one half million dollars for an improvement project. Is the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine more important than the health of our kids? Sadly, at this point in time that answer seems to be a thoughtless disgusting "yes".
As exposed by the recent events associated with Hurricane Katrina, we see time and again across this country that poor communities with poor people do not receive equal justice, as do the more affluent and powerful. Our mountains contain some of the most sought-after coal in the industry, but our children and community members have historically suffered for the profit of a few. This is no longer acceptable. Coal River Mountain Watch will continue to fight for a sustainable future for our community and the health of all who live here.
We are requesting a reply within ten days. We remain hopeful that you truly care about these kids, and recognize the fact that a professional study and analysis is what is needed in this matter.
Cc: Carte Goodwin
Coal River Mountain Watch