Last weekend, a group of University of New Hampshire students traveled to West Virginia for a summit hosted by  Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival. Here, Eric Petersson reflects on his experience.

“Why do you look with envy, O mountains with many peaks, At the mountain which God has desired for his abode? Surely the Lord will dwell there forever” Psalm 68:16

Deep in the ancient mountains of Appalachia, surrounded by the second most biologically diverse rainforest in the world, one of the most destructive forces humankind has conceived is occurring. Mountaintop removal is the latest technique of coal mining in which hundreds of feet of topsoil, shale, and rock is removed to expose the world’s largest energy source. This energy is not without cost, however, and has devastating impacts on our communities and environment.

Let’s start with coal miners. West Virginia is home to generations of hard working coal miners who have been seeing massive layoffs due to the largely machine powered mountaintop removal operations. If you are “lucky” enough to still work in the coal industry, you show up for work every day for long, physically demanding hours in a job where your worker rights are not protected, and with the knowledge that you are destroying the environment, your community, and your home. Worker’s unions have been dismantled to the point that not a single unionized miner works in West Virginia today, and coal companies are seldom held accountable for the thousands of safety violations that have resulted in frequent injuries and deaths.

Mountaintop removal is dangerous process that requires significant blasting and dislodges harmful particulates into the air. Our group stayed at Stanley Heir’s Park which sits by a hillside where the worst air quality in West Virginia was once measured. Dust has long been known to be one of the most harmful substances to human respiratory systems and fills the lungs of workers and community members nearby. Locals know the harm these coal toxins can do to them, but often are stuck in circumstances that expose them to these dangers.

While in West Virginia, I had a chat with “Jim” who works at the coal processing facility just down the road from Stanley Heir’s park. As we sat by the fire he drank a few more Natural Lights to a state of intoxication that seems to be the norm for many these days. He told me that he hates his job as many in the divided industry do and that he goes to work every day with the hope of getting fired. Proudly but uncommonly, his lunchbox displays a sticker stating “clean coal is a dirty lie”, a testament to the shattered remains of his power against the coal industry.

Jim works in a facility that washes the coal to separate it from rock and other contaminants. As you can imagine this process requires a lot of West Virginia’s famously clean water, contaminating it with toxins and heavy metals. Now someone at the coal industry had the idea of putting this waste water in abandoned mines untreated after the process, and the coal-powered West Virginia environmental regulators have permitted such operations. These mines are not lined and this has contaminated groundwater around the state to the point that people can no longer use water that has been clean for generations. If Jim knows that his plant is the reason he can’t drink out of his own faucet, then it’s awfully hard for him to satisfy a thirst for job satisfaction after a hard day’s work.

Every human being requires clean air and clean water, and without it the people of West Virginia now have life expectancies on par with those of third world countries. This includes children that are dying of respiratory problems and cancers now commonly occurring at young ages. Medical resources that can theoretically help sit hours away and inaccessible to those in dire economic circumstances. Is our energy policy so ignorant as to neglect those who most need attention, or can we develop solutions without the greed and exploitation of the world’s finite natural resources? The legislative bodies that allow this type of exploitation are the same one’s that govern all of us as Americans and we cannot distance ourselves from the citizens’ right in our backyard. If fossil fuel divestment has already proven the power to move trillions of dollars away from this destruction, then united communities have the power to end “clean coal” and lay our future a strong foundation.

Eric Petersson studies civil engineering at the University of New Hampshire. Motivated by energy issues, he believes that every question can have a better answer by fusing the powers of nature, technology, and community.