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Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
— Psalm 23.4
The chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia has once again put Appalachia on the map. This is what it usually takes. People have to not just die at the hands of the coal and chemical industry, they have to die dramatically. The long slow death spiral West Virginia has been in for over a hundred years is not news unless they do. The Charleston spill did not kill anyone, at least not yet, but it did affect a large number of people. It was very dramatic, much more so then the suffering that goes on each and every day here, which is killing people, which is permanently ruining streams and rivers and removing mountains.
After all, if the chemical had not leaked accidentally, they would have brought it up the Coal River and dumped it into the aquifer on purpose, and it would have gone to Charleston and down to New Orleans anyway. When a story like this breaks we hear once again the cries of “Poor West Virginia!” They are sacrificed in the name of corporate greed. A wave of pity will wash over the country, and almost every one will look down the on the hollers once again and count their blessings, and then go to bed believing that they live in a place where this shit don’t happen. It is happening somewhere else to someone else, and is someone else’s fault.
For the record, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, grew up next to a DuPont chemical plant, and we did this too. This sense of otherness that West Virginians have is reflected in the way others often see them, and treat them. I was raised to believe that country people were not like us. We were better. That is what a lot of people must be thinking right now. As for the West Virginians, well, they have always seen themselves
as being different, and much of that, if not all of that, is due to the unique history, geography, geology and biology of Appalachia. Timber, salt, coal, oil, gas and limestone, the richest deposits in all the world, surrounded the city of Charleston, and the Kanawah River and eventually the railroad provided a way to get these to markets around the world.
The upper 80 miles of the Kanawah is called Chemical Valley and for over a century has been home to the highest concentration of chemical companies in the U.S. The mineral wealth of Appalachia literally built this country as we know it today, powered its mills and factories and made the belching smokestack a symbol of prosperity. It was a deciding factor in both world wars. Indeed it was the WW1 that created Chemical Valley as federal dollars rolled in to replace our almost total dependence on chemicals from Germany, which supplied almost all of the world’s industrial chemicals in use at the time. Soon Chemical Valley could make the same claim, and while the last few decades other countries have reduced its market share, Charleston is still the world’s leader in the manufacture of chemicals, and by proxy, in the poisoning of the world’s water. If you ate a fish caught any place in the world, you have chemicals from Charleston in your body.
The fact that most of the people in this state remained poor while the huge fortunes of the Gilded Era were being amassed has not evaded the occupants of the land that contained this wealth. And while not passively accepting this grim fate they have at least come to expect it. Mountaineers have a brave history of fighting and winning historic struggles against all sorts of invaders, yet the result were always the same. Things did not change for the better. They usually got worse.
So what of the rest of the country? Are any of us really that different? Isn’t their fate in the hands of the same Toxic Overlords as our own? The answers are obvious. We face a global crisis, and solutions need to be global. Yet there is reason to keep our attention on Charleston, and on mountain top removal, because this is where much of the chemicals released into the global environment originate. It is also where much of our fresh water originates. It was the birthplace of the labor movement, where the poor and disposed did rise up,and, for a while at least, made things better.
There are many people on the ground in West Virginia fighting this industry. They have been warning for decades about the threats that coal and chemicals pose to our water. The idea that Appalachians are not standing up for themselves is a false one, and the comparisons are made to make us all feel better, as if we too had not been poisoned and dispossessed. The attention of the world is once again focused on West Virginia, and there is a reason for this: Chemical Valley is the Valley of Death.
The movement to end coal mining is larger and stronger in West Virginia then in most other places I’ve been, and since this is where the industry is concentrated, where it holds absolute political power, it is not surprising that making progress is difficult to impossible. Victory can be achieved only if the nation stands together and demands real change. It has to start here.