Sometimes the most unexpected things in life can prove to be the refreshment you need to keep going. For Ian and me, we found the community we have been missing one weekend in the middle of September through an annual meeting with a group of liberal Catholics.
My education and exposure to the Catholic faith has been pretty lacking until this point. Besides Pope Francis, I didn’t know such a thing as a liberal Catholic existed. Most likely because the media loves to focus on birth control and homosexuality. But exist they do, and they showed up in legions this weekend to attend the Catholic Committee of Appalachia’s annual meeting, held in Charleston WV this year. The mission: to celebrate the 40 year anniversary of the Appalachian Bishops’s pastoral letter, and to study the local and global water crisis.
What was so wonderful was how familiar everything about the conference felt to us. Being an International Development and Environmental Studies graduate, I am very used to being in the company of passionate, social justice-minded people and have been to my fair share of conferences advocating for awareness and activism. Leaving a relatively liberal Christian college and moving to Bible Belt West Virginia has been a culture shock, to say the least. No longer can I assume that the students and teachers I interact with believe in climate change or evolution, and if I dare to claim that coal is bad for the region I risk being ostracized. Leaving that world and spending time at the CCA conference felt like a breath of fresh air, and in many ways, like “home.”
As I mentioned before, I am an International Development Studies graduate so I consider myself to be relatively informed about the humanitarian crises happening throughout the world. However, this conference blew apart my confidence that I could even understand what was happening in my own back yard. The drought in California is well known, and I expect global water wars to define much of my adult life; but until this conference I had never given any thought to water issues in the eastern US. Dr. Ben Stout is a professor of Stream Ecology at Wheeling Jesuit University, and he opened the conference with a presentation about ‘Big Coal’s’ effects on the Appalachian water system. His career had been relatively research-focused until he was called to court in order to testify against the work being done to “reclaim” mountain top removal sites. To his shock, the coal company lawyers vehemently denied that the streams Ben had been researching for decades even existed. Seeing the ways that companies could twist the truth so deliberately caused Dr. Stout to take the results of his research into the real world.
Though Appalachia is a water-wealthy region, this water supply is threatened. Algae blooms from chemical fertilizers are becoming larger and more frequent, and underground wells are continuously contaminated by mining. In 2014, massive chemical spill from a containment tank used to clean coal slurry contaminated the Charleston water supply for days. 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol is a nonpolar molecule that doesn’t dissolve in water and can’t be removed by flushing out tanks. This causes this hard-to-detect toxin to linger in the water supply virtually forever. Dr. Stout declared that everyone in Charleston was risking their health unless they fully replaced their water heaters; the city government only suggested throwing out plastic dishes.
Professor Laura Diener of Marshall University spoke at the conference about the 2014 chemical spill in terms of poverty and inequality, indicating that income is a driving factor of safety when faced with contaminated water. Her field research and in-person interviews told a shocking story about accessibility. During the spill, most affluent residents were able to simply buy bottled water, leave the region for a few days, or drive to various emergency tanks of safe water throughout the city. However, those without cars had difficulty getting to these tanks, and many were forced to drink from their taps anyways. Some of the tanks in the poorest neighborhoods were illegally filled with the contaminated water, and in some cases inmates weren’t given access to safe water until their families protested for days. And this was toxic water. Showering with it caused many to break out in rashes, and ingesting it caused nausea and lingering sickness. Over 700 were stricken, and 16 were hospitalized. Yet some people were still forced by lack of options to use it in their baby’s formula.
This was no natural disaster, no act of God. This chemical spill was directly caused by inept safety measures by Freedom Industries and the coal industry as a whole. But this isn’t an isolated problem. Spills like this happen a lot, and many regions of Appalachia are permanently cut off from their ground water supply due to chemical contamination. Why was the Charleston spill different? Why did it make national, international news? Because, for once, it affected an urban area. In the words of one of Professor Diener’s interviewees,
“It’s a good things this spill happened to rich white people too- otherwise no one would pay attention.”
Sadly, this lack of attention to the sufferings of the rural poor is a common story in Appalachia. Shannon Bell, PhD, a Sociology at the University of Kentucky, took part in an interactive conversation at the conference about how her research revealed the ways industries were polluting rural communities. In so many ways, the roots of communities and families run incredibly deep in this region. Yet, these roots are being torn up as families become stymied in their attempts to stay and thrive in their home communities due to the poverty caused by the coal companies. She has collected story after story of women suffering from the ecological impacts of the industry. In one instance, a broken containment pond caused massive flooding in a holler and almost carried away a woman’s house with her children in it. Now, her children have nightmares every time it rains and their home has lost all resale value. In another case, coal dust from a processing plant settles so thickly on the homes in the nearby community that some homes have depreciated in value from $144,000 to less than $12,000. That loss is incredible enough, but it is made worse because living in such close proximity to coal factories dramatically raises one’s risk of cancer. When the value of a home can depreciate almost 92%, what chance does a non-affluent family have to sell and move somewhere safer? More importantly, why should they have to? That is a loss of power. Without their consent, without their voices being heard, the people of Central Appalachia are being sacrificed for the energy needs of the rest of the world. And every time I turn on the hot water I am contributing to their suffering.
This isn’t a far away problem. This is happening right here in America. It’s affecting the lives of the students I work with. It’s defined the lives of their parents and has limited the options the next generation has in life. The least we can do is to try to understand.
Shannon Bell has written a book on her research. It’s called Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Woman and the Fight for Environmental Justice. I haven’t gotten hold of a copy yet, but it looks fabulous. If you want more information about it, you can find that here. (Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed). After all, being informed is the first step to lasting change.