CHARLESTON - The “war on coal” rhetoric makes it sound as if West Virginians are unified in supporting the industry. However, polls and interviews with ordinary folks suggest that isn’t true, especially if they think coal is hurting their health.
Dustin White is from a longtime Boone County mining family.
His father, a miner, died of cancer in March, and White was one of several people on a hunger strike against mountaintop removal last week.
Even though he’s only 31, he said, a lot of people his age have seen the health effects of mining coal.
“I never really wanted to take this stance, but when I had my eyes opened and realized that I was outliving people I had played with as a child, I knew that I had to do something,” he said. “I could no longer sit idle and not do something.”
A series of studies by Indiana University professor Michael Hendryx showed a link between surface mining and increased health problems. According to opinion polls, about two-thirds of West Virginians oppose mountaintop removal. The coal industry disputes both the studies and the polls.
Mining companies and their allies long have argued that the industry is vital to the state’s economy. But for others, that view is being outweighed by issues such as air pollution from the region’s huge coal-fired power plants.
Sylvia Ridgeway, president of the West Virginia NAACP, said the group supports shifting to cleaner energy sources because African-Americans and low-income whites often live downwind of the smokestacks. She said respiratory issues are a constant complaint in her community - and even in her own family.
“My son, who has asthma, he now lives in California, and he does fine while he’s in California,” she said. “But once he visits West Virginia and he steps off that plane, he has to grab his inhaler.”
Last week, the NAACP issued a report calling for reduced pollution and increased clean-energy jobs. It argued that environmental justice is a civil rights issue - and for low-income communities, an issue of social justice. Details of the report are online at naacp.org