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Trouble in Coal Country
Comments () | Published September 1, 2008
The bathtub in the house where Terry Keith lives with her son and daughter-in-law is stained from the local water. Photograph by Matthew Worden

Lambert and her neighbors aren’t eager to single out company names. Some residents are quick to say they aren’t coal-bashing. A teacher says coal companies do a lot for her school—fixing up parking lots, supplying computers, and giving out holiday gift certificates for staff. She doesn’t want trouble. “In coal country, they will take you to court and sue you good if you talk about their business in a slanderous way,” says one resident.

Terry Keith, whose house is ten minutes from Lambert’s, is worried about her grandchildren. She lives with her son and daughter-in-law. She babysits their two-year-old triplets every day while they’re at work. Before she knew better, she was using tap water in their formula. She still cooks and does dishes with the water because it costs too much not to.

Someone from the local health department came to test Keith’s water but checked only for coliform bacteria and E. coli; testing for metals is too expensive. Keith says the woman who came over told her she wouldn’t bathe babies in the water. “What are we supposed to do?” says Keith, who lost her husband in a mining accident 20 years ago.

The Boone County Commission, a government agency, is supplying city water at a community center about ten miles from Keith’s house; residents bring their own jugs. She says she can’t just pack up the triplets and drive 30 minutes for water. What about the elderly, she asks, and the people who can’t afford cars?

When they met with the local water company in January, some of the Prenter residents were told it could take at least three years to get access to city water. Lambert held up her water sample and asked a company employee if he’d like a drink.

Lambert and her neighbors waited months to hear from the DEP. The testing found no direct link between coal mining and their water problems.

DEP secretary Randy Huffman visited Lambert’s home in May. He brought someone from the Department of Health and Human Resources with him.

“In their frustration, they are looking at the state and saying, ‘How can you not help us when you know we have a problem and you know there’s coal mining close by and you know there’s underground injection close by?’ ” he says. “We’re not finished with our investigation. . . . We’re actually trying to make that connection.”

If they keep looking, Lambert says, they’ll find something.

A friend of Lambert’s, Patty Sebok, gives residents tips on writing letters to politicians and newspaper editors. Check your grammar and punctuation, Sebok says, and tell your story.

“I read that there is a lot of money appropriated for water projects. I pray—and I do mean pray—that they see it in their heart to send some of it our way,” Lambert wrote to Congressman Nick Rahall. “It is getting worse every day.”

Rahall, whose office said he was unavailable for an interview for this article, replied to Lambert that he had contacted the West Virginia Public Service Commission and the Bureau of Public Health on her behalf. Lambert says she got a similar response from Senator Robert Byrd, who said, “Coal turns on the lights in the Capitol!” during a 1999 rally on the Hill after a court ruling against mountaintop mining.

George Davis of Marshall University says politicians in West Virginia have always worked hard to make sure mountaintop-mining regulations weren’t strengthened any more than they had to be. “It’s a balancing act between doing what’s right for the environment and the people who live there and for economic development,” says Davis. “Coal is still the biggest game in town. They’re not going to do anything that’s going to in any way hamper that industry.”

That doesn’t mean politicians don’t care about the environment. Congressman Rahall spearheaded legislation to expand the Abandoned Mine Reclamation program, which helps protect citizens affected by abandoned sites. Senator Jay Rockefeller, whose staff said he was unavailable for an interview, is pushing for federal investments in research on and commercial deployment of carbon capture and sequestration, technology that would allow coal-fired power plants to inject CO2 underground rather than release it into the atmosphere.

But if they want to be reelected, Davis says, they’ll do what’s best for coal.

“They’re all going to say, ‘We want the Clean Water Act enforced’ or ‘We want the toughest pollution regulations possible,’ ” says Davis. “But when an instance comes up where they have to make the decision, are we going to listen to the citizens who say their water’s polluted or the businesses that say they’re providing jobs for West Virginia? More often than not, the latter win.”

Lambert and her neighbors think the situation is simple: Their water is contaminated, and people are sick. She recently sent out an e-mail that included an invitation to her congressman: “Dear Mr. Rahall, I would like to invite you to dinner at my home. I am cooking a wonderful meal with our well water.” When Bobby Mitchell went door to door, 20 of 35 people using wells reported digestive problems—cramping, internal bleeding, intestinal disease. One man said a doctor found arsenic in his blood and asked if the man’s wife could be poisoning him. Mitchell says a nurse is looking into the number of miscarriages in the area.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 09/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles