Opinions, Column

A Tale of Testimony and Resilience in West Virginia

“What’s your favorite part of West Virginia?”

Ask this question to any native West Virginian, and you’ll see their eyes light up as they describe the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains stretching across the western panhandle, the sweet music of gurgling streams and creeks (pronounced “cricks”), and the dappled sunlight filtering through trees along country backroads. They’ll say you simply must come in the fall to see the explosion of vibrant reds and yellows that overtake the forests. Then they’ll proudly tell you that the Appalachian Mountains have stood tall since Pangea.

And perhaps, upon hearing their answers, you’ll smile and marvel at how vast and unshakable the West Virginian landscape must be if its mountains remain standing after hundreds of millions of years.

But as you ask more questions, you’ll soon discover that while the land itself may be unshakable, its capacity to support the livelihoods of West Virginians has greatly weakened. I learned this the hard way on my Appalachia Volunteers (Appa) community service trip to Wheeling, W. Va.

When you ask West Virginians what they must do to support themselves and their families, you’ll watch the excitement fade from their eyes, see their shoulders slump forward, and hear a sigh so deep it seems to reverberate back through generations of exploitation.

Maybe you’ll meet someone like Kaden, a coal miner, who only feels truly free in the outdoors among West Virginia’s beautiful forests and rivers. Kaden, who spends a minimum of eight hours underground every day without seeing the sun. Kaden, who works shifts so long that he’ll kiss his wife goodnight on Sunday and not see her again until the following Saturday. Kaden, whose sneezes are always accompanied by black dust, and whose nails are permanently blackened because no amount of scrubbing will ever erase the coal that coats them.

“They trap you with the money,” he’ll tell you. 

Indeed, though Kaden graduated college with a degree in criminal justice, he soon found that the coal mining industry held such a monopoly over West Virginia that the salary for a coal miner was more than triple any other job.

If you continue asking questions, you might meet a fellow like Fallon, a 17-year-old boy only too excited to tell you about all the best fishing spots. Fallon plans to follow in his dad and pap’s footsteps by working in the coal industry, a profession that has utterly ravaged West Virginia’s rivers. Indeed, the rivers have been so polluted that we heard of a young boy who colored a creek orange in his coloring book because he had never seen a clear stream before. 

Lastly, if you travel to Appalachia and talk to enough people, you might even be lucky enough to meet someone like Heaven. An apt name because with her Goldilocks hair, pastel-green blouse, and unwavering commitment to doing what’s right, Heaven was nothing short of angelic when I met her.

Heaven graduated in three-and-a-half years while balancing internships in the Senate and White House. She was on track to pursue a law degree and could have easily skyrocketed to stardom in Boston, New York City, or Washington D.C. As she began to embark on this path, however, something gave her pause.

Growing up on a small farm in a town just 30 minutes from West Virginia, Heaven witnessed countless attacks on the health and autonomy of the people she grew up with. She watched art programs disappear as the education budget was slashed to subsidize fossil-fuel companies. She watched countless well pads get built in her town until one could be seen from every window of her high school. Most insidiously, she witnessed the health of her neighbors deteriorate as oil and gas companies came to cash in on the mineral rights beneath their houses.

Powerless to stop these injustices when she was younger, Heaven was now fully equipped to make a tangible difference in her community. She knew plenty of people worked in the big cities, but who would advocate for people in Appalachia? Immediately, Heaven rose to the challenge.

Now, as Organizing Director for the Center for Coalfield Justice, she receives daily calls from residents trying to resist the relentless encroachment of fossil-fuel companies onto their land. Heaven’s direct access into their lives allows her to uniquely understand the many hoops residents must jump through simply to access clean air and clean water.

So there we sat on a sunny March afternoon, myself and nine other APPA volunteers, utterly captivated by Heaven’s testimony. She told us stories of how the arrival of fracking sites had led to increased cases of miscarriages or cancer. She told us how, despite these health risks, both West Virginia and Pennsylvania’s Departments of Environmental Protection (DEP) do not have jurisdiction to consider health risks when creating environmental regulations. Furthermore, she said, since West Virginia is the most extracted state in the country, its land has been mined for generations, making it nearly impossible to hold present-day coal companies accountable for adverse health impacts because they can easily claim that a previous mining company is responsible for any waste leaks.

Heaven could even personally testify to the restrictive omnipresence of the fossil fuel industry. She lives on a family farm and told us that due to legislation favoring oil and gas interests, Pennsylvania does not allow community solar projects, making it illegal for her family to power their own farm through a shared solar array.

These testimonies highlight the deeply entrenched and generational factors that force people throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia to destroy what they love most about their state to survive: the environment. Heaven perfectly encapsulated this phenomenon: “People always say we love coal. No, we love to eat. We love to put food on the table and keep the lights on.”

Herein lies the true beauty of West Virginia’s continued resilience, despite the immense odds they face. I watched Kaden transform his harsh experience in the mines into genuine laughter as he told us there’s nowhere to go to the bathroom, “so you either go on a cinder block or in a corner!” I saw him speak candidly to groups of strangers about his story and answer even the most ignorant questions with unwavering patience.

Then, sure as the Appalachian mountains still stand tall, I watched Heaven speak with absolute conviction as she told us, “This is a fight I will be fighting for the rest of my life.” With her head held high and her voice steady and strong, I have never met a person so sure of what they know is right and so dedicated to making this world a better place than they found it.

So as Heaven goes door-to-door installing air filters, walks into meeting rooms to push for drafting regulations, and shares her story with 10 students studying at a school hundreds of miles away in Boston, she brings with her the most crucial component of change: hope.

And that is the message I want to leave you with. I bore witness to a small window of these people’s lived experiences, and what I saw took my breath away. I witnessed an ever-present sense of humor in the face of even the most daunting odds. I watched people transform their small corner of the world into something beautiful. I saw one woman cultivate a green space in the middle of a concrete city and watched a group of farmers build a fresh produce market in the middle of a food desert.

Above all, I listened as people trusted us with their testimonies so that we too could pass it on. This column is my first attempt of many to do just that. 

April 22, 2024