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“You People”, environmental degradation, and difficult choices

December 5, 2009

Again, I scaled this photo not to overflow the column here too badly, but you can click on it for a bit larger version.

Miners in West Virginia, holding a 'Go Home Tree Huggers' sign

Back to the photo that inspired the last post, I got a sinking feeling in response to the protest signs, but I think I can understand it. There’s a lot of local opposition to all the environmental destruction from mountaintop removal mining, as one would expect. It’s impossible not to see people getting hurt, while whole mountains are getting honest-to-goodness pushed over and it’s polluting everything. A number of towns do not even have potable water anymore; I stayed in one–which has since been relocated by the Army Corps of Engineers, thanks to mining-induced flooding*!–and was issued bottled water. The stuff coming out of the taps was so full of minerals that shouldn’t be there that I couldn’t even stand to take a shower, for the smell and weird color. There may be a few people living there who consider all this a good state of affairs, but I haven’t met any of them.

The big difference? As compared to some of the insulting lookie-loos mentioned in the last post (‘it was obvious that I, at least, was not there to rudely gawk at the hillbillies, and condescendingly make myself feel better by “helping” them.’), the locals are very aware that the area is already in bad economic shape, there’s not a lot of other work around which doesn’t involve pillaging natural resources for the profit of outsiders–and people have got to eat! It’s a terrible situation all around. The local environmental groups are not acting like they know better than everyone else what’s good for them.

While there’s a lot of coal mining further up the New/Kanawha River, we haven’t had much trouble with that back home. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t been dealing with environmental degradation. “The New River is the second oldest in the world, but a recent study now claims it’s also the second dirtiest waterway in America,” thanks largely to pollution from Radford Army Ammunition Plant. It’s now very polluted indeed, and I wouldn’t eat fish or shellfish out of it on a bet, now that the pollution levels can no longer be covered up.

Another source of pollution that came out a couple of years ago (can’t find a reference right off)? Unapproved dumping in an old quarry, bought specifically for the purpose of disposing of toxic waste trucked in from out of state. Though most of the coverage seemed to be of damage to the river, that’s a limestone quarry in karst. This is not the first source of heavy metal and other contamination of aquifers in the area.

The tributary near my house back in Radford, Connelly’s Run, is horribly filthy from landfill runoff, including PCBs. There was a Tutelo town on the creek, just on the other side of the hill from where I grew up. I resorted to hiking over there to go to water anyway, a couple of times, when I was back home and short of time–but felt like I needed to scrub myself afterward.

What’s coming out of the tap is not much better.

People have lived on that river for at least 20,000 years, depending on fish, mussels, crawfish, etc. I have eaten one hell of a lot of fish out of that river myself, before we knew just how filthy it is. Corporate greed has gotten it into that state since 1941. Poorer people are still having to try to find clean enough water to supplement their diets with fish, especially as bad as economic conditions are right now. Another aspect to tie into the recent Racism 101: poverty, race, and health threats post.

So, no, we haven’t had much mining to deal with in our part of the New River Valley, but we’ve had the Radford Army Ammunition Plant (you can see how it’s right on the water), which opened during World War II. When it was still a union shop which paid relatively well, both my parents worked there. My Papaw worked there for 40+ years; so did my Mamaw during the war. A lot of people were commuting 1.5-2 hours each way from neighboring areas of West Virginia (it’s roughly 30 miles from the state line). My mom felt like she had to work there, knowing it was a terrible place, since it offered the best money without additional degrees in her chosen field of Library Science; my stepdad spent years unable to work, with massive medical debt, and we really needed the money and good insurance coverage right then.

As has happened repeatedly with mines, the whole joint shut down in the ’90s, and reopened non-union, under different management. Both my parents lost their jobs. A lot of people still probably have no obvious choice but to commute for less than half the pay and worse safety conditions. I knew a couple of people who worked there afterward, and it did sound even worse.

Most of the time my stepdad (who grew up in the DC area) worked there, it was as an engineer. A number of his coworkers were shocked to find out that he was married to a local, much less one who worked on the lines. Good indication of the atmosphere.

A great anecdote: One time my mom got saddled with an environmental assessment inspector sent in from New Jersey, because they were being forced to make some token discharge reduction/cleanup gestures. This inspector made sure to inform everyone in the building that she was sick of having to come in and clean up after “You People”. I don’t think she even paid enough attention to notice that my mom did “look Indian” (by colonial racist standards); she was too fed up with her own mental version of Generically Horrible Hillbillies. We are safely dismissed and demonized, either way.

The people working there were very aware that they were up to their eyeballs in toxic chemicals all the time, that safety equipment and procedures were frequently inadequate, that they were bringing traces of said chemicals home to their kids, that the jerks were polluting everything, and that this was not a good state of affairs for anyone. (Well, other than one very strange woman my mom worked with, who thought they were making hideous grey pasta rather than rocket propellant, but not only was that unusual to say the least, she was from Michigan!) When things were not under close scrutiny, employees were ordered to openly dump barrels of toxic shit into the river. You could (probably still can) see funny-colored, reeking trails of the stuff flowing down the river.

It has caused a lot of conflict for a lot of people. What the place was doing to the river was widely considered as close to sacrilege as you can get. On one hand, it was such an openly evil place it was hard to find any humor whatsoever in it; on the other hand, people’s families had to eat. An awful lot of people got PTSD from working there; some of the stories I’ve heard–and not just from my family–were almost beyond belief. (My mom got both sexually harassed and assaulted by supervisors, and is far from the only woman I’ve heard that from.) It was pretty much Wétiko Paradise.

Sometimes there isn’t any particularly good choice available. That helplessness–and self-blaming because of it–can cause an awful lot of extra mental anguish in itself.

It’s hard to tell exactly what killed my mother at 60. Her elementary school was built on an old dump site in the early ’50s. The teachers had to warn them to stay away from the rats and the puddles of unpleasant substances seeping up out of the ground. (I went there too, BTW, but at least the visible puddles had leached away by the ’80s. :-|) A disturbing number of the kids she was in school with died of some kind of cancer before they hit 40; this started before they finished high school. Then she lived on what was rapidly becoming the “second dirtiest waterway in America” for most of her life, and ended up directly working in toxic chemicals. She spent the last ten years of her life seriously disabled. Her quality of life was poor for a long time, but she’d apparently had the cancer in her bones for an estimated 5+ years before it spread to her breast. Still, even with the mastectomy, the fact that the ribs underneath were already eaten up with it was not caught until she collapsed five years later. She never even got a reasonable diagnosis; her death certificate claims “breast carcinoma”, when they knew good and well that it did not start out in her breast. I do not think that was completely unintentional; it’s just too convenient, under the circumstances.

They found my Papaw’s lung cancer during his retirement physical, and he died less than a year later, at 65. That was blamed on smoking, naturally, but there were so many potential factors (including asbestos) that it’s overwhelming. I also clearly remember his yelling until he was red in the face, then breaking down and crying when my mom told him she didn’t see any choice but to go to work there.

And that’s just two examples of how living in a toxic stew have affected two people. Yes, it makes me very angry indeed, and not just because these particular cases were my close family. This should never happen to anybody, anywhere.

You see this kind of pattern all over the world. I can’t help but see an extra Fourth World element to our particular regional variation of this pattern within the U.S., but it’s all based on cannibalism and exploitation: wétiko. Not only are natural resources fair game for anyone with money, so are any people they care to dehumanize and consume.

Yes, environmentalists tie back in. I am very concerned about all the damage, as are an awful lot of local people. It’s hard not to notice nor care, when you see things getting torn up around you and people getting sick and/or dying from this stuff! A number of locals have become very uncomfortable calling ourselves environmentalists, even when we are.

Some of the people calling themselves environmentalists are respectful, but too many of them are not. They have come in, connected to the universities, and further dehumanized the local people. They know better than we do what is good for everybody and everything, and do not hesitate to say so.

Some of them, too, make it plain that they are sick and tired of cleaning up after “You People”, i.e. the Hillbilly Lumpenproletariat. I am particularly fond of the ones who also go on about justice in Central America, while their privilege blinds them to the fact that they might also be treating indigenous people like shit, closer to home. Too many of them continue in the mindset that says treating other people like things is OK, when that’s what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place. It adds insult to injury.

So, yeah, I think I have a pretty good idea of some of the things motivating these miners. It’s not necessarily what some stereotypes might lead the unfamiliar to believe.

It also did not surprise me the magazine article illustrated the possible barriers to sustainable energy with a picture of hillbilly coal miners waving a surface-obnoxious sign. (Rather than, say, a photo of Massey’s corporate headquarters, not located in Appalachia at all.) That just fits so well with so many preconceptions, not to mention keeping away from the real cannibals and their power.


* Not that this has totally stopped the flooding, mind you! To be fair, it was only the main town cluster itself that got moved, IIRC.

From 2009. Source.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2009 3:07 pm

    The Radford Arsenal is often referred to as the “sister” plant to the Badger Army Ammunition Plant here in Wisconsin. Modeled after Radford, the Army began construction of Badger in 1943. In 1990, when groundwater contaminants (carcinogenic solvents) from the base were detected in nearby residential drinking water wells, neighbors organized Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger. We would like to network with other community members who face similar challenges and who support peaceful means to build a safe and healthy environment. To contact us or to learn more about our work, please visit our website at .

    • urocyon permalink
      December 8, 2009 12:34 am

      Thanks for the link. I hadn’t heard about BAAP before. Sounds like Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger are doing some important work! The problems mentioned on your website sound depressingly familiar. I hope the Ho-Chunk can rehab some of the land, as well.

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