06 July 2010


4 July 2010

I’m in Whitesville, WV with Jim Hansen, the climate scientist, to attend Larry Gibson’s annual July 4 party. I’m here to do a portrait of Dr. Hansen, see Larry, and to go to his legendary fete. To entertain myself, I decided to bring an old Rollei f, truly one of the great cameras; it’s such a joy to shoot a little film. Remember black and white?

Larry is truly a modern David, squaring off against the goliath of king coal, personified by Don Blankenship, president of Massey Coal. To look at a satellite image, or better, to fly over Larry’s land is to laugh and cry simultaneously. An island of green rises from a despoiled expanse of regurgitated overburden from mountaintop removal mining. Modern mining processes, through mechanization, have inversed the human cost with environmental damage. Ironically, the corollary human toll is unemployment and decay of the communities that were supported by human-powered mining.

Resource wealth rarely benefits the populations in the rich place, those fortunes tend to be extracted to the same place whence went the resource. The people that remain are generally left with poverty, decaying infrastructure, and environmental nightmares.

Main Street, Whitesville is evidence of that pattern; of the few operative concerns were two funeral homes, a few stores (chain saws, floor coverings, five and dime), and of course a few churches. Most of the storefronts are haphazardly boarded, some with love notes written in the dust covering the windows. Dust near coal facilities is a tremendous health issue, and asthma tends to be high. Down the road is the Marsh Fork Elementary School, next to another Massey Coal processing plant. Above the school is an earthen dam holding millions of gallons of “slurry,” the chemical soup used to clean coal before it can be burned and continue its life cycle of destruction.

One can only imagine what Whitesville was like in its zenith, hard to picture all of the stores open and people on the sidewalks.

The people in Appalachia are some of the most vocal supporters of coal mining, and who can blame them? Their lives are at stake. If you lose you lose, but if you win, you really lose. Without coal they have no jobs, but with coal they have desecration, pollution, and asthma. Just down the road is Coal River Mountain, a summit steeped in legend and controversy. For years Massey pressed for permits to begin blasting apart the mountain for the coal underneath. The residents floated a proposal to build an array of windmills on the top, a solution that would have provided clean electricity and jobs forever, as opposed to the dirty and short-term plan of Massey, after which would remain a wasteland. Blasting began last year and destruction of the mountain is moving forward.

There is a better way. It won’t mean loss of jobs and decimation of the economy, to the contrary.

We must demand it.