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Wes Holden

Wes Holden

I was in the West Virginia Governor’s Office last week and saw a quilt hanging in the area where the governor conducts his news conferences. The quilt had various depictions of coal mining.

At the top of the quilt, I saw a picture of the pristine Rocky Mountains covered in snow. There was a caption attached to it by John Muir which said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Muir was a famous naturalist from this past century and he is also known as the “Father of National Parks.”

I paused and wondered, was the governor promoting more mountaintop removal and strip mining in the state of West Virginia for the cheap extraction of coal? When he travels from The Greenbrier resort back to Charleston, does he not see the mountains that have been permanently impaired environmentally and economically? The greed for cheap extraction of coal has destroyed more than 1,000 square miles of mountaintops. Thousands of streams have been polluted with heavy metals and acid mine drainage. How many slurry ponds are considered as high-risk failures?

For more than 100 years, West Virginia has been controlled by coal interests. The minerals and labor force in our state have been exploited by those industries who were only looking for high-yield profits without returning any dividends back to the local communities where the extractions took place.

Coal monopolies have controlled our Statehouse for too long. Distant and recent histories indicate that coal companies don’t actually care about their workers. They file bankruptcy, in order to skip out on their obligation to pay taxes, and, at the same time, cheat their workers out of retirement and health care. That’s not to mention the ecological and environmental disasters they have left behind.

Politicians became a part of a rigged system that preserved their political careers at the expense of the poor and working class.

Respiratory diseases associated with coal mining, such as black lung, radon gas exposure and mercury poisoning, are well known. Many are unaware that coal-burning power plants are the single largest source of toxic mercury pollution emitted into the atmosphere. Mercury can affect fetal development. At high levels of exposure, psychotic symptoms occur; these include hallucinations, depression, suicidal tendencies and insomnia.

For more than a century, massive profits for out-of-state coal corporations have been made by the extraction of coal. If coal is so good, why has West Virginia, for generations, remained among the poorest states in the nation? Why do our southern coalfields continue to be the most impoverished areas of the state? Why are environmental laws being relaxed for an industry that does not pay its fair share of taxes and doesn’t respect the duty to restore the land?

Ask why those you elected to office did not consider you when they cast their votes for out-of-state landlords. They have allowed the state to become a sacrificial zone for the energy industry at the expense of our environment and labor market.

Unfortunately, many coal-reliant counties are facing financial crisis because of their continued dependence on coal revenue. Our state’s budget is being affected, as well. False promises have been made about a comeback for coal, but that comeback has never materialized.

Yes, coal has been an intricate part of West Virginia’s history. The ultimate tragedy is not what has happened previously, but today’s political creatures who lack vision, courage and a moral core to speak up in order to change our future.

As West Virginians who care about our state, we must ask ourselves what we can do to build a better state. We must elect new leaders who are willing to diversify our economic equality, so that we will no longer be held captive to one single industry.

Wes Holden, of Sissonville, is a retired federal employee.