This is a guest post from Adams Wood and Francine Cavanaugh, Directors and Producers of the documentary On Coal River.
In 2005, Bo Webb was convinced that the coal mining method known as “mountaintop removal” was slowly killing him and his neighbors in Coal River Valley, West Virginia. After some research, he discovered that the coal industry was using 3.5 million pounds of explosives a day in West Virginia to blow off the tops of mountains to get at the thin seams of coal. He could see coal and rock dust drifting from the mines to the houses below, including his own. He knew about the toxic runoff that would hit the streams below, and he was especially worried about kids at the local elementary school. The playground sits just a few hundred yards from a mountaintop removal site and is directly downhill from a 2.8 billion gallon coal waste pond.
For years, the coal industry had insisted that if people near mines were sick it was because of “lifestyle factors” such as smoking, poor diet, etc. Bo didn’t buy it. He didn’t have any training in statistics or public health, but he drew up an informal health survey and began knocking on the doors of his neighbors. We went with Bo to film his efforts, and you can see the scene in our documentary, On Coal River.
We wondered how people in this mining community would react to a pair of strangers coming to their door with a camera, but people were eager to tell their stories. The first man we talked to said his granddaughter suffered terribly from asthma. A young mother told us her kids were more frequently sick since moving to the area. Down the block lived two women who had each had cancer, and their dog had also had cancer.
Bo tallied up the results, and with neighbors and fellow activists, he brought them to the governor’s office. He knew that his informal survey wasn’t “scientific,” but he argued that the results were alarming enough to warrant a pause in the mining until a formal health study could be conducted.
The state of West Virginia never did conduct a health study, but seven years later, there are now 20 peer-reviewed research papers conclusively proving that living near a mountaintop removal mine has significant negative effects on human health.
For the next five years, we followed Bo — as well as his neighbors Ed Wiley, Maria Lambert and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Judy Bonds — as they fought to protect their valley from mountaintop removal, move the local elementary school to a safe place, and protect their water from toxic mine waste. It was a privilege to spend time with them, to witness their humor and spirit, and to be inspired by their unbreakable courage and determination.
This June, Congress introduced the Appalachian Community Health Emergency (ACHE) Act, which would place a moratorium on mountaintop removal permitting until health studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services. Please visit our petition page to take action now.
Photo credit: On Coal River film screenshot