An immoral, unethical experiment continues today on 300,000 American citizens in nine West Virginia counties.
With almost no data upon which to base a decision, people have been told it is safe to drink the water that was poisoned earlier this month by a chemical company that provides toxins to the coal industry. Hospital visits have spiked after the “Don’t Drink The Water” order was lifted. Mothers are reporting skin damage on their infant children. People are left wondering why their legs and hands are burning, why mysterious rashes appear after washing.
West Virginia is this nation’s involuntary laboratory where we test to see just how much abuse human beings can take. Our state motto is “Montani Semper Liberi,” meaning "Mountaineers Always Free." A more accurate reflection of reality would be “Montani Semper Expenditati” -- "Mountaineers Always Expendable."
West Virginia’s coalfields in the late 19th century opened the door to that laboratory. A roadside marker tells of the Monogah Mine Disaster, where as many as 500 miners (many of them new immigrants) died in December 1907. We have similar roadside markers all over West Virginia.
Twenty years after Monongah, Union Carbide re-defined “disaster” with construction of the Hawk’s Nest tunnel. More than a thousand mostly migrant, black workers may have died (the company didn’t really keep count) in digging the tunnel under the mountain so Carbide could have cheap electricity. Out of that disaster, we learned a new word: silicosis.
The coal industry has taught us hill folk lots of new words, and they’re usually words for things that kill or maim us. Appalachia taught America about Coal Worker’s Occupational Pneumoconiosis. To this day, about a thousand miners die every year of an entirely preventable disease. After a hundred years of that, the ciphering gets pretty ugly in our laboratory.
The coal industry killed again in 1972, another 125 people that time, innocents, when a multi-million gallon sludge dam burst at Buffalo Creek.
Poisoning and killing innocents is the modern trend in our highland laboratory. Money comes first and people’s wellbeing chases the money parade. Where Big Coal once built trifling multi-million gallon seas of toxic waste, they now build them to hold BILLIONS of gallons of that filth, including the same chemical, Crude 4-Methycyclohexane Methanol, that poisoned 300,000 peoples’ water. The eight billion-gallon toxic waste impoundment looming over Whitesville, West Virginia stands taller than Hoover Dam.
Where their dust was once confined to underground mines, that dust, from 5.5 million pounds of high explosives used every day drifts with the wind onto our communities, into our homes, and into our lungs. Birth defects, cancer and heart disease occur at shockingly elevated levels in communities forced to coexist with mountaintop removal coal extraction.
No agency looks out for the well-being of innocents living with mountaintop removal. Not OSHA, not MSHA, not EPA, not OSM. There is no air monitoring near mountaintop removal sites; neither do the coal companies like to talk about what they put into their toxic waste seas, things like 4-Methycyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), which is presently floating in a plume down the Ohio River.
So it is that group of us have banded together to call for passage of H.R. 526, or the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act. First introduced in June of 2012 by former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and reintroduced in the 113th Congress by Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, the ACHE Act would ban new mountaintop removal permits until a complete study could be accomplished to explain why people who live near mountaintop removal are stalked by cancer, heart disease and birth defects.
After the study, if the coal industry couldn’t prove they could work without poisoning and killing innocent people, as a matter of the operation of the ACHE Act, the practice would have to end. It is the only bill in Congress with the power to end mountaintop removal.
The principle at work in the ACHE Act is central to an enlightened understanding of environmental justice and human rights. That concept dates back to the ancients and the maxim primum non nocere, meaning "first, do no harm." If people across the United States call for passage of the ACHE Act and then use it as a model in their own communities, we have a much greater chance of preventing the next toxic disaster in someone else’s water supply.
It would be, by far, the best result ever from this laboratory in the magnificent, yet tortured place my family has called home for nine generations.
Bob Kincaid is a broadcaster, co-founder of the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Campaign, president of Coal River Mountain Watch, and a resident of Fayette County, West Virginia, where his ancestors settled in the mid-18th century. Kincaid was a guest in Sunday's Melissa Harris-Perry discussion; the first half is above, the second below.