MAC: Mines and Communities

The Coal Mine Next Door

Published by MAC on 2006-03-15
Source: American School Board

The Coal Mine Next Door

American School Board Journal Cover Story

March 2006: Vol. 193, No. 03

(Sundial, W. Va.) For Ed Wiley, the alarm sounded two years ago on the third straight day that he had to pick up his 9-year-old granddaughter, Kayla, from Marsh Fork Elementary School because she was sick. She was nauseated, had a bluish pallor, and was crying, perhaps from days of bad headaches. As they drove past the Sundial coal mine next to the school, he recalls, Kyla looked at him with tears running down her cheeks and said, "Grandpa, these coal mines are making us kids sick."

Wiley had noticed each day that 15 to 20 other children of the 230 or so enrolled had also been signed out early. He called a television station and was interviewed on the news that night. Afterwards, parents started telling him about their sick children. He complained to the Raleigh County superintendent and the state health department, and eventually he and three other residents spoke at a school board meeting about the danger the coal mine's proximity posed to the students. The citizens felt they got nowhere.

"They said it wasn't their responsibility," Wiley says of the board members. "It was the coal mine's responsibility. It wasn't their problem."

Raleigh County Schools officials defend the school's safety (see sidebar) at a time when increased scrutiny is being focused on West Virginia's largest industry. In January alone, 16 miners died in accidents while on the job, prompting state and federal officials to call for tougher safety measures against coal companies.

Today, Wiley, parents, and other critics say the coal dust and toxic chemicals from the giant Sundial mine are fouling the air at Marsh Fork Elementary, which stands barely a stone's throw away across a narrow river. They point to the 165-foot high coal silo, towering just behind the school. Coal dust is kicked up when thousands of tons of coal drop from a conveyor belt into the silo and then are loaded noisily onto trains, as many as 90 cars at a time. Black soot several inches thick has been seen on the school playground and in the building's ventilation system. Residents don't only fear that children are breathing in coal dust. Some 300 yards from the school ground stands Sundial's preparation plant, where the coal is scrubbed with chemicals to remove impurities before shipment, and the nearby ponds that catch chemical spills all contain a witches' brew of potent substances.

An even greater peril stands high above the school on the mountainside. A lake of sludge -- at least 2 billion gallons of coal waste -- keeps growing. The 385-foot high earthen dam holding the sludge back is known to have seepage, and there is evidence the dam was not built properly. The school lies directly in the path of any collapse. So does the silo. Some parents are so nervous about the dam that when it rains heavily, they take their children home from school early. In 2000, a dam belonging to industry heavyweight Massey Energy failed in eastern Kentucky, causing a toxic spill 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster. Some people here also remember the dam that burst at Buffalo Creek, W. Va., in 1972, sweeping 125 people to their deaths and leaving 4,000 homeless.

Yet not far from the dam and school, blasting goes on at a mountaintop removal site covering three square miles. Some say the vibrations endanger the dam. Students at the school are said to speak of the booms as "bombs exploding." Residents officially protested Massey's plans for this enormous operation so near to the school, but to no avail.

There is only circumstantial evidence supporting these concerns so far. There is no proof that any illness at the school is due to coal dust or chemical emissions or bad water. But the psychological vulnerability of children who hear and feel the blasting and have been told the dam may break is another matter. This is an emotional burden they already bear.

One family's story

"When it rains, sometimes, my son doesn't want to go to school for fear the dam will break," says single mother Sherry Pettry of her 9-year-old son, Tyler. The boy tells her that if the sludge pond above Marsh Fork Elementary floods, "it could wipe out the school." He's heard that from other kids.

Pettry says a teacher told her that when blasting occurs, "some kids hit the floor. They're terrified of the dam breaking.'"

Tyler has had health problems since kindergarten, when he was hospitalized with pneumonia, missed close to 30 days of school, and was held back, she says. Generally, he suffers from upper respiratory problems and sinus and ear infections. His problems tend to run the length of the school year but he feels okay in the summer.

He has no appetite except in the summer, she adds, and weighs only 67 pounds. She's noticed that boys on the school basketball team are much smaller than kids on rival teams.

Tyler told her this fall, "I guess it's time to start getting sick. School's back in." Actually, he's missed no school this year, she said in late December, but has a constant cough.

The danger from the mine is clear to her, but she believes too many people "bury their heads in the sand." She wants the school moved to a safe place. Last summer, she says, kids played football barefoot on the school's field. "Their feet were entirely black, just like they'd run through coal," she says. It makes her wonder, "What are they breathing?"

Little has changed

Reports of sick children like Tyler galvanized some in this community on the Big Coal River in southern West Virginia. But despite a string of protest marches, civil disobedience, arrests, a sit-in by Wiley at the capitol, and promises by the governor to take action, little has changed in the past year except for sharpened divisions in the community -- particularly between friends and foes of the coal company, Massey Energy.

Several residents met with Gov. Joe Manchin last June and told him 60 families at the school had been personally interviewed and 53 reported having children who frequently fell ill. Nearly all had asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses, according to the interviews.

Residents also told the governor they had been told that three teachers at the small school and a 17-year-old former student had died of cancer. The governor said he would investigate, and state education officials later inspected the school. Still, school and state officials have consistently maintained there is no evidence of a health or safety problem at Marsh Fork, and critics say they have mounted no serious investigation.

Massey Energy, which owns the Sundial facility and three other huge coal operations nearby, has kept largely silent on the issue, spurning citizen demands and most press inquiries, including from ASBJ. This is Appalachia, where big coal companies traditionally have gotten their way with the government and been called to account only by the United Mine Workers. Now the union has dwindled in size and power, and citizen and environmental groups have tried to take up the slack.

In these parts that means Coal River Mountain Watch, a grassroots group that fights coal company abuses. Wiley joined the group, which had already received complaints about illness at the school. After gathering signatures from more than 150 people on the river, Mountain Watch launched a campaign to shut down most of the mine and move the school, which was built long before the mine. Massey bought the mine in 1994 and stepped up operations.

"We know the school is contaminated," says Bo Webb, a Mountain Watch volunteer who has led its campaign and did most of the interviews that found sickness among children. "Something is wrong," says Webb, adding that the state health department said it lacks the resources to do its own survey of school families. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it investigated, but it only did interviews. It never tested the school.

"We know we have sick kids," says Webb. "We want to know the cause." He believes it's the mine. So do some parents.

Evidence may come from court. Several miners at Sundial have come down with chemical poisoning, and two are plaintiffs in two class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of all workers in West Virginia's 200 prep plants against coal companies and chemical manufacturers. One suit focuses on neurological injuries and illness and medical monitoring of workers and their spouses; the other seeks only medical monitoring for workers and their children.

Thomas Basile and Stuart Calwell, attorneys specializing in toxic exposure who initiated the first suit, say it is "likely" that chemicals used in Sundial's prep plant found their way into the nearby elementary school. They cite the evaporation from washing coal, from topless holding tanks, and from the sludge pond that results in airborne transmission. Chemicals also "may be getting into the groundwater and water supply," adds Basile, citing the runoff that may occur at such plants, including spillage from holding tanks, seepage from sludge ponds, and runoff from the antifreeze-like products sprayed from the silo onto rail cars in winter so the coal won't freeze.

"All these chemicals are dangerous to the central nervous system in young people," which is not fully developed until the mid-teens, says Calwell. "The injuries that can occur from these exposures don't show up for years."

As for coal dust itself, many studies have linked particulates with health problems that can lead to aggravated asthma, respiratory-related hospital admissions and emergency room visits, and premature deaths, according to the EPA. Children are considered among those most susceptible to air pollution, in part because their respiratory systems are still developing. Coal and sludge also contain many toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury, and uranium, some of which cause cancer. It is even possible the children exposed to coal dust are at risk of developing black lung disease, Calwell says.

Blowing up the mountains

To Webb and others, behind the school dispute is something larger. They see the school as the latest victim of mountaintop removal, a growing practice that involves blowing the tops off mountains to get at the coal seams and dumping the debris into valleys and streams. Its huge scale, heavy use of explosives, and destruction of forests, waterways, and communities make the practice immensely controversial.

A fight has raged for a decade in Appalachia, pitting the coal industry -- determined to use this ruthlessly efficient method of extracting coal to compete internationally -- and the industry's suppliers and political friends against citizens and environmentalists determined to halt the practice. Mountaintop removal has been spreading on both sides of the Big Coal River for the past seven years, hollowing out mountains and making some homes uninhabitable.

Little love is lost for Massey here. People have long complained that the company prefers to hire outsiders, keeps the union out, conceals controversial operations, and has callously crippled or destroyed the little communities where it mines. When it comes to Massey, many here assume the worst.

"It shows how far [Massey] will go to get coal," Webb charges of mountaintop removal. "It's obvious now kids will be sacrificed for it." What's happening at the school, he adds, is "the price we're paying for so-called cheap energy."

Employment is another reason feelings run so high over the school. Virtually the only good jobs on the river are in Massey's four huge mines. Though virtually nonunion, they pay far more than other local jobs. "Massey is the only game in town. It's either that or flip hamburgers up at Wendy's," says resident Rick Bradford. Frequently required to work a six-day week, miners generally earn $12 - $18 an hour.

West Virginians have an abiding attachment to home and hills and family, but losing a job in the mines can mean not only a downward plunge economically but the need to pull up stakes to find work. So mining families find any talk of shutting down Sundial threatening. Likewise, they find the threat of closing the school upsetting. Accusations that some people are endangering children by claiming the school is safe also raise hackles. Both critics and defenders of the mine see themselves as the children's true champions.

A chain of protests

The school controversy began to heat up this past May, when two rallies were held at the Sundial plant gate under the watchful eye of state troopers. Some protesters chose civil disobedience. Eighteen people were arrested for trespassing, including several parents at the school and an 82-year-old grandmother. Most, however, were young people from across the country, foot soldiers in a national campaign against mountaintop removal called Mountain Justice Summer. A number of them spent the summer on Coal River.

The rallies were precipitated by Massey's application to build a second coal-loading silo next to the first, constructed in 2003 only some 200 feet from the school. "Why the hell did they put it there?" asks Webb. "They've got 122 acres." Massey has never explained the choice of location, though it may have been to avoid building more railroad track. Some people suspect the company was trying to force the school's closure to make people leave Coal River and so reduce resistance to mountaintop removal.

Massey said the second silo was needed to keep two grades of coal separate. At a public hearing on both the permit for the silo and renewal of Massey's permit for the sludge pond, all of the more than 50 speakers -- each given just two minutes to speak -- opposed the operations.

On June 22, several residents met with the governor, who seemed concerned and promised to assemble a team to investigate conditions at the school. A week later, the state Department of Environmental Protection approved the second silo. Those who had talked to the governor felt betrayed. A week later, Wiley mounted the steps of the state capitol with a photo of the school and a sign and refused to leave, forcing the governor to speak to him. Manchin repeated his promises.

Soon after, the Charleston Gazette reported that locating the two silos so close to the school violated federal and state law. In the ensuing uproar, the DEP revoked the new silo's permit but let the original silo stand.

Massey denied any wrongdoing, appealed the decision, and issued its only public statement to date. The coal silos, it claimed, "encapsulate coal and control coal dust" and so are environmentally beneficial. The company added that it "contributes substantial money to area schools" and has a long-standing partnership with the elementary school. This includes workers' wives taking part in "Read Aloud Day," donating prizes for good behavior, making playground improvements, purchasing items for field day, and providing tickets to an outdoor theater. Massey accused its critics of spreading misinformation and "false fears" to advance "a radical anti-mining agenda."

July saw three straight days of marches past Massey's three other mines on the river to protest mountaintop removal and the school situation. Only about 20 residents joined scores of MJS activists. Others were apparently scared to join in. There were as many as 40 counter demonstrators -- Massey miners and wives and a few teachers. The two sides carried signs proclaiming "Massey Feeds Our Family" and "Outsiders Go Home" and "Coal Ho's Bow Down to Massey." On day two, a woman driver tried to run over Webb and another marcher, but after talking to her later, they did not press charges. On day three, the marchers turned to silence and singing to avert provocation. But a few days later, Webb got a telephone threat and then a warning that miners had vowed to throw him and a colleague down a mine shaft. For a while he kept his gun within reach.

People say Massey uses a divide-and-rule strategy and welcomes neighbor turning against neighbor. The school issue has even divided families. Things have gotten tense in households where parents and grandparents -- or husbands and wives -- don't agree on whether the kids are safe at school.

Business as usual

In August, the state epidemiologist told the governor the health risk to Marsh Fork students "remains unknown." Manchin had the state department of education inspect the school over the summer. Inspectors looked for mold and coal dust deposits while testing the ventilation system, which they deemed was working well. (Residents say the school had been scrubbed for weeks before the inspection.). But they never tested air quality indoors or outside for coal dust or chemicals, saying they weren't health experts.

The state immediately declared the school safe and classes resumed. Mountain Watch condemned the investigation as a sham and delivered a 10-pound baloney to Manchin in protest. But Manchin said his investigation of the school was over and refused the group's request for an independent evaluation.

"The governor does not want to know the truth," charges Webb. And Calwell adds, "Once you know, then you have to do something."

"Remember," says Webb, "if they admit there is coal dust and other mine-related pollutants in the children's lungs, there is going to be a parade of lawsuits naming just about everyone who has been made aware and did nothing." Others suggest the state's economy is so dependent on coal that officials choose to look away.

The school board closed nearby Marsh Fork High School three years ago over intense opposition and bused the students miles away. Residents are convinced the same fate has long been planned for the elementary school. When a county elementary school upriver was recently awarded state funds for a new building, fears of school consolidation -- a reality for many West Virginia residents in recent years -- were heightened. As with the high school, declining enrollment could be the pretext. But Webb warns that if the board tries to close the school, there will be quite a fight.

Peter Slavin is a freelance writer based in Oakton, Va. He has been writing about the Coal River Valley since 1995.

Sidebar: Defending the school's safety

After a community delegation told the Raleigh County School Board its concerns about Marsh Fork Elementary School, board chairman Kim Cooper says he contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection. Then he and the district safety director and assistant maintenance supervisor toured the Sundial mine with DEP officials.

Cooper says the DEP told him there are no problems at the school. The board, he adds, must rely on the DEP to determine whether the school is safe, because members lack the technical expertise to judge for themselves.

Stuart Calwell, an attorney for victims of toxic exposure and the former head of West Virginia's Kanawha County School Board, disagrees. "It's not enough to accept the word of the authorities [that] there's nothing to worry about," Calwell says. He advises the board to go further and do baseline testing and periodic follow-up to ensure there is no risk, "instead of just proclaiming there is no risk." Through inaction, he says, the board is "gambling with the long-term health of these children."

Superintendent Charlotte Hutchens says there is no evidence an unusual number of children are sick, citing the school's 96-97 percent attendance rate. But these figures don't tell the whole story. Other school officials say that children who are out sick and return with a doctor's note or excuse from home are counted present for attendance purposes, a step state regulations permit.

Cooper says he has no knowledge of a high rate of illness at the school or of cancer cases. However, an ASBJ inquiry found that three adults who worked at the elementary school or in the building when it was a middle school have died of cancer in the past 10 years. This includes two teachers (Linda Daniel and Lloyd Bone), and a cook (Ann Holstein). In addition, a former student at the middle school died at 17 of ovarian cancer. Another young woman who went to the middle school is currently recovering from the same disease.

Enrollment at the school has fallen from 279 to 215 in the past four years, a 23 percent drop that seems rapid even in a state whose school population is declining. Whether this is partly due to parental concern over safety is not clear.

The school's safety is defended by Patty Allen, a special education teacher for the past three years who transferred to a county high school this winter. Allen, whose son is a student at the elementary school and whose mother was the custodian there for years, is quick to say "no one in the family has ever been in coal mining."

Allen denies that those who work at the school are afraid to take a stand against Massey. She says that of the 28 teachers, administrators, and staff at the school, only six have immediate family members working for the company. And she notes that six other teachers also had children at Marsh Fork Elementary, evidence of their faith in the school.

Allen believes children's health at the school is no worse than elsewhere. She says she is not worried about the dam's safety, because her husband's company did a computer test on the dam when they built it. The seepage, she says, prevents overflow.

The one teacher who complained openly about conditions lives less than half a mile from the mine, Allen notes. Why, she asks, doesn't coal dust make his son sick in the summer? "If it's coal dust," she says, he "should be sick year-round. The wind does not just blow one way, toward that school."

As Allen sees it, the critics have a vendetta against Massey and are using the school controversy to score points against the company.

Sidebar: The teacher who complained

The only teacher at Marsh Fork Elementary to publicly protest conditions has been Kenneth Pettry Jr., whose wife also teaches at the school and whose son is in the fourth grade. He gave an interview to a local newspaper reporter last spring and later spoke on television. He tried to speak at a rally but says he was shouted down.

"I'm not a troublemaker," says Pettry (not a direct relation of Sherry Pettry). It was dismay over the initial approval of the second silo that led him to speak out. "To me, that's doubling pollution," says Pettry. "You can't ignore this."

Pettry, a veteran teacher with four children, believes those at the school are being treated like guinea pigs in a study of pollution's effects. "This is like a laboratory down here," he says. "I don't know of any school in the United States that has a [coal] silo."

Pettry says the teachers who demonstrated against those protesting conditions at the school have relatives working for Massey or fear the school will be closed and consolidated. Others won't speak out for fear of alienating themselves from their colleagues, he says.

Many of his colleagues, he claims, refuse to acknowledge the risks to their students, no matter how obvious. He says he's seen teachers pretend they didn't hear a mine blast go off. It "could rain cinders around them," and they'd draw no conclusion, he declares.

For more information

Coal River Mountain Watch. CRMW works to stop the destruction of local communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life, and to help rebuild sustainable communities.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. OVEC is a grassroots organization dedicated to the improvement and preservation of the environment through education, grassroots organizing and coalition building, leadership development, and media outreach.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA provides a software tool to help school districts establish and manage comprehensive school facility self-assessment programs; an environmental health and safety checklist that can be customized to reflect state and local requirements and policies; and links to online resources to help address environmental health issues in schools.

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