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On Thursday, January 9 a dangerous toxin, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, leaked from a busted tank and into the Elk River in West Virginia. It is believed that nearly 7,500 gallons of the toxin made its way from the 40,000-gallon tank into the river. It’s unclear how much actually entered the public water supply.
The busted tank is owned by Freedom Industries, which uses the chemical for coal processing. Some 300,000 people have been directly impacted by the disaster, forced to wait in long lines at fire stations to receive potable water. There’s been a constant run on stores for the precious resource as well.
This is a story to often told in Appalachia. The Massey Energy coal slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky (where 306,000,000 gallons of toxic slurry hit the town) and the TVA coal ash disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, are also part of the history of industrial disaster in the region. This history is wrought with class struggle, environmental degradation and corporatism. From the expulsion of Native Americans to the rise of King Coal, the Hawks Nest incident, the labor struggle, the Battle of Blair Mountain and the wholesale destruction of mountain ecosystems via Mountaintop Removal, Appalachia is on the front lines of the war with the politically connected.
The coalfields of Appalachia have long been home to impoverished people, overlooked by the affluent in the United States. Still, the “War on Poverty” has made its way into the Appalachian hills several times. Most famously, US president Lyndon Johnson singled out the region for his “Great Society” programs, and presidents 42, 43 and 44 have all tried to help the region as well. Instead of offering a new way forward, their programs further damage the area.
Much of the “War On Poverty” has been fought via economic engineering, centralizing the economies of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky (along with parts of Tennessee and Virginia) into the hands of extractive fossil resource industries — notably coal and natural gas. The mechanization of these industries, however, has reduced the labor force. Specialized labor moving to the region has caused short-term booms and long-term busts. Once an extractive resource is exploited and gone, communities are left to deal with mono economies and irreversible ecological destruction.
The challenges that face Appalachia are indeed great. To solve them, one must question why our “national interest” still lies in an “above all” energy policy. One must question how so much wealth has been extracted from the Appalachian coalfields while the communities there remain so poor. One must question why the largest consumers of fossil fuels are great militarized nation-states. One must question why such an ecological crisis is occurring. One must question the pervasive influence of the corporate monopoly on the people’s democracy. One must stand up for themselves, their community, their consensus and yes, even their biodiversity.
Today, these questions are being asked. Appalachia is rising.
Over the years numerous citizen coalitions have formed. These groups are networking together to ban the exploitation of Appalachia. Groups such as Appalachian Voices, Mountain Justice, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (see: ilovemountains.org), Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and many others, have developed true grassroots movements across the region. The Appalachian movement is building a sense of urgency around the plight of the weeping mountains, and the people who call them home. Movements work, the line has been drawn: The corporate state or its end — it really is that simple.
Which side are you on?
Grant Mincy is from the temperate forests of East Tennessee.