There’s a joke circulating among Syrians who fled the brutal conflict devastating their country to the quiet mountains of West Virginia: “We escaped the lethal chemicals in Syria only for them to follow us here.” Of course, what’s happening in West Virginia right now is no laughing matter. But how could the refugees not be reminded of their decimated homeland after finding themselves, along with 300,000 other West Virginians, without access to potable water? Unfortunately, West Virginia is no stranger to having its living conditions compared to those in developing countries.
Fifty years ago, Michael Harrington authored his incisive depiction of poverty in the United States, aptly titled The Other America. The bestselling book—named one of the ten most influential books of the twentieth century by Time—is widely believed to have inspired John F. Kennedy’s commitment to addressing the dire conditions of the “invisible poor,” whom Harrington noted generally lived in rural or inner-city isolation, making them easier to ignore. After Kennedy’s assassination, this commitment was passed on to his successor, culminating in Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty.”
West Virginia’s problems figured prominently in Harrington’s narrative. In one evocative passage, he describes the paradox of the state’s beauty and its grave socioeconomic conditions.“Driving through this area, particularly in the spring or the fall, one perceives the loveliness, the openness, the high hills, streams, and lush growth.” However, “beauty can be a mask for ugliness,” and “this is what happens in the Appalachians.”
This ugliness masked by supreme natural beauty has not disappeared in the fifty years since Harrington wrote these words. As a lifelong West Virginian who was raised among the southern coalfields of this state, I’ve witnessed firsthand the misery that permeates life here. “This irony is deep,” Harrington writes, “for everything that turns the landscape into an idyll for the urban traveler conspires to hold the people down. They suffer terribly at the hands of this beauty.” The suffering has largely come at the hands of the coal industry, which for the past century has purchased the blind loyalty of the state’s most influential institutions as it exploited the population for labor in criminally dangerous conditions, all while destroying the pristine grandeur of the environment to extract the abundant coal below the surface.
By almost any measure, West Virginia’s population suffers from some of the worst socioeconomic conditions in the country, and there is no divorcing these realities from the coal industry’s domination of the state. Currently, the Mountain State’s population is the least college-educated in the country, with less than 20 percent of its adult population possessing a bachelor’s degree. As anyone who attended school in this state can attest, the widespread notion that one can easily obtain a well-paying coal-mining job with little to no education continues to be a significant contributor to this trend. I will never forget the feeling of despair that overcame me as a high school student observing my class size dwindling year after year, as more of my classmates decided that dropping out was their best option.
However, the coal jobs that sustained generations in these families are no longer there, and Walmart is now the state’s leading employer. Instead of taking a shortcut to a well-paying blue-collar job, my former classmates who decided to drop out instead sentenced themselves to a lifetime of economic slavery working minimum-wage retail and fast-food jobs. This vicious cycle of poverty and low levels of education has contributed to a plethora of other problems, including nation-leading rates in obesity, smoking and prescription drug abuse. Last year, Health.com named West Virginia the “most depressed” state in the country. Charleston, the state’s capital, was crowned the “most miserable city in the nation” based on its low ranking in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which assigned each state and city in the country a score based on physical health, emotional health, self-described happiness, access to basic necessities and work environment. This distinction was attained prior to the poisoning of Charleston’s water supply by the laughably named Freedom Industries.
As Harrington’s work illustrates, these problems are nothing new, but state officials have been too busy capitulating to the coal industry to do anything about them. In the last election alone, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, accepted more than $350,000 from the energy sector. Half of this total came from the coal industry. It’s no wonder that hours before a leak at a coal-washing plant dumped nearly 30,000 liters of a toxic chemical into the Elk River, Tomblin boasted in his annual State of the State address that he “will never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal.” This too is nothing new. As one expert told The New York Times, “West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider E.P.A. interference, and that really puts workers and the population at risk.” Considering this, it’s no surprise that the site of this leak had not been inspected since 1991. It should also come as no surprise that these incidents of corporate malfeasance that destroy the environment and harm the general public are not extraordinary for West Virginia. In 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in southern West Virginia killed twenty-nine miners. Later that year, an explosion at a West Virginia chemical plant killed two workers and released toxic fumes into the surrounding areas. This past year, West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining deaths.
However, individuals affected by these types of accidents are not the only victims of the state’s lack of oversight. One study found that residents of areas surrounding mountaintop-removal coal mines “had significantly higher mortality rates, total poverty rates and child poverty rates every year compared to other…counties.” Another study found that compared to residents of other areas in the state, residents of the state’s coal-mining regions were 70 percent more likely to suffer from kidney disease, over 60 percent more likely to develop obstructive lung diseases such as emphysema and 30 percent likelier to have high blood pressure.
It couldn’t be clearer that any perceived short-term economic benefits of allowing the coal industry to dominate the state’s political landscape in no way make up for the tragic socioeconomic, health and environmental problems it creates. The recent chemical spill, which brought the state’s capital and largest city to an eerie, apocalyptic halt, should not be viewed as an isolated incident, or an “act of God,” as a West Virginia coal company called an accident that left more than 123 dead in the early 1970s. Rather, this incident is the latest example of what happens when industry is allowed to purchase the complicity of the state officials who are supposed to keep it in check. This should serve as a valuable lesson for all Americans, but West Virginians should be especially wary, as history threatens to repeat itself with the rise of fracking. In addition to coal, the Appalachian Mountains conceal an enormous reserve of natural gas embedded in the Marcellus Shale. West Virginia sits at the heart of these reserves, and the natural gas industry has them in its sights. If this industry is allowed to reign over our beloved Mountain State in the same way that “King Coal” has for the past century, it’s a safe bet that Michael Harrington’s description of the state will be just as relevant in another fifty years.