West Virginia. What comes to mind when thinking of this state? Coal, Confederate sympathizers, Trump supporters? Fair. West Virginia’s stereotypes make it, for many, a place to avoid. In fact, before traveling there for my Alternative Spring Break trip, these stereotypes led me to form my own negative thoughts about the state. In my initial assessment of West Virginia, I failed to take a step back and think: why can’t this state break out of its negative stereotypes? After volunteering with the non-profit organization Coal River Mountain Watch, I began to realize how underlying forces in West Virginia ensure the state’s commitment to coal.
It is no surprise to anyone who follows politics that coal is in West Virginia’s DNA. The state had been thrown into the national spotlight following President Trump’s visits, in which he reaffirmed his support for the coal industry and promised to bring jobs back to West Virginia. Coal River Mountain Watch is an anomaly there. The people in the organization belong to the minority of West Virginians who oppose coal. Not only that, but they also speak out against the dangers of the coal industry.
Coal corporations in West Virginia risk the good health of the communities in which they operate. For example, a full-scale coal plant was built right above the Marsh Fork Elementary School in the unincorporated town of Naoma. Over the years, the coal dust gave many students at Marsh Fork health complications. The corporation in charge of the plant, Massey Energy, had been one of the major donors to and supporters of Marsh Fork. Ironically, every so often Massey executives and employees would go down to the school and hand out small toys to the students. A small handful of enraged parents and community members joined forces to fundraise and protest against Massey’s influence. The parents were successful and a new Marsh Fork Elementary was built away from the coal plant in 2013.
Politics are a major influence in any situation, and in West Virginia it is no different. Governmental support bolsters West Virginia’s deep-rooted commitment to coal. “Junior,” one of the environmental activists at Coal River Mountain Watch, told our group: “West Virginia is coal and coal is West Virginia.” There is no better way to explain its attitudes toward the coal industry. Most of the state’s elected officeholders are supported by the donations and endorsements of powerful coal corporations. This ensures that their coal operations will not be slowed down, despite the industry’s harmful effects on the community in the form of health hazards and environmental degradation. West Virginia’s commitment to coal is the product of a vicious power dynamic in which coal corporations have too much control over government officials.
In a state so heavily tied to the coal industry, the work that Coal River Mountain Watch does to address and curb the harmful effects of mountaintop removal mining is extremely admirable. It is unlikely that West Virginia will cease coal operations, especially after President Trump’s calls to revive the coal industry. And it is important to understand the forces behind West Virginia’s reliance to coal before being so fast to judge, since there are some people in the state guarding against the encroachment of large coal corporations.