“Almost Heaven, West Virginia” John Denver’s voice wobbled through the speakers as we drove our large van through the snow packed streets of Wheeling, West Virginia. This spring, eight students and myself went on an immersion trip through our University Ministries program to the Appalachian region. We spent most of our time in West Virginia, and parts in Pennsylvania. We went as a part of the Wheeling Jesuit institution of learning and were scheduled to learn all there is to know about the coal, oil, and gas industries and the problems of energy surrounding these companies.
An immersion trip is different from a mission trip, because on an immersion, you spend your time listening to every side of the problem and assessing for yourself what the main issues are. And we discovered there is a lot more going on then what lays on the surface. Jack Willis called Appalachia A “rich land [with] poor people” because the land is vibrantly rich in coal, oil reserves, and gas pockets. There are a great deal of resources in the land that we can utilise. However, this also means that many workers only source of income is either coal mining or working with the oil/gas companies. That being said, if the region wanted to move to a more environmentally sound resource, thousands of workers would be out of a job and unable to care for their families. Therein lies the great problem.
West Virginia holds some of the most beautiful mountains in the world; the Appalachians. However, over 7,500 acres of the mountainous region have been destroyed due to mountaintop removal. Coal gathers in strips along the mountain and it is cheeper for a coal company to simply blow the top of the mountain up to reach the coal underneath than strip mine along the sides. While these companies attempt to put the mountain back together, they have destroyed thousands of microorganisms in the process and leave the mountain unable to obtain its previous glory. There is a group called The Keepers of the Mountain and they are an organisation who live on Kayford Mountain, a mountaintop removal site that was long ago finished. We were able to see the destruction of nature at Kayford and also talk to those who are still fighting. Not only in the mountaintop removal, but there is also a great problem with what the coal companies call ‘slurries’. It’s a chemical substance that comes off of the coal after it is treated. Because there is no place to dispose of this sludge, they dig these great trenches and fill it with over 100,000 gallons of slurry. This can cause multiple problems, the first being that if the dam holding the slurry breaks, it could slide into a town and destroy homes or get into rivers. Also, the slurry’s chemicals can leach into the ground and could get into the water and people’s drinking systems. Thus causing health issues. Health problems pertaining to coal mining were a larger issue in previous years due to coal miners developing ‘black lung’ and cancer from the fumes in the mines.
Many people in the region thought that the solution to the coal mining problems would be natural gas and oil. People thought it would serve as a gateway out of coal mining and into renewable resources. The fact is though, that the oil and gas industries are causing as many problems as the mining companies are.
Oil/Gas companies have a method called ‘fracking’ that drills into the earth and extracts the gas’s from pockets in the ground. And recently, they have developed amazing technology that can drill downward and horizontally, which allows them to collect more gas with less money and time. While this is an amazing step to industrialising the oil/gas industry, it creates a lot of issues for those living near a drill site. For example, if a oil and gas company told you that they were going to drill under your house, you would have to reason to say no, because technically you do not own the soil that is under your house. The drill will go in and begin to shift the ground and dirt right under your house, until sometimes, houses will split in half or shift. Most of the time, if a house is damaged, the company will not pay for said damages because there were not technically on the house’s property. Also, often these drills will hit water tables and contaminate the water supply.
There are a few companies fighting for the ‘little guy’ in the region. The Centre for Coalfield Justice handles lawsuits over fracking disputes. West Virginia Heathy Kids and Families Coalition help connect other nonprofits and aid to the community. The importance of these organisations is that the people of the region are still fighting. Yes, the situation is very complex and at times we felt hopeless as to how to change that. However, with people still willing to fight for each other and for the preservation of nature, we can truly make a difference. All it takes it one voice who is willing to speak out.