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Trouble in Coal Country
Comments () | Published September 1, 2008

“He’s wanting to know, ‘What can we do to get these people clean drinking water?’ ” Nelson says. “It’s simple: Quit polluting our water source.”

Later he finds himself explaining why West Virginians need help from other parts of the country. “You have to understand how West Virginia is,” Nelson says. “The industry runs our state.”

Maria Lambert remembers being overwhelmed with emotion when she was a little girl and the state song, “The West Virginia Hills,” came on. She also loved hearing “America the Beautiful.” That was when she thought she was living in the perfect place—when kids played in the creek and gardens grew. That was when the mountains were an escape.

When she’s asked why she doesn’t move away, why she stays in a place that’s causing her so much grief, tears fill Lambert’s eyes. “This is my home,” she says. “It’s where I was born.”

She’s traveled as far west as Colorado and as far north as Maine, but she and her husband have never found a place to which they’ve wanted to move. And they’ve never felt they should have to. “Why should we leave so they can come in here and destroy everything our families have worked for our whole lives?” she says.

Nelson says the connection between the people and the land in West Virginia is something not everyone can understand. Citizens recently fought to have the state’s welcome message changed from “Open for Business”—a phrase that Governor Joe Manchin started using on highway signs a few years ago—back to “Wild and Wonderful.” A billboard on a mountain road reads:

In God’s hands are the depths of earth

and the mountain peaks also belong to God.

One of Nelson’s friends, Larry Gibson, owns 50 acres that sit on 39 seams of coal. The land is worth millions, he says, but he won’t sell. He lives in a tiny solar-powered cabin at the top of his mountain with no running water. His family has been there for a century—relatives are buried in the soil.

“We’ll get you off this mountain,” he’s been told. “We’ll give you prosperity.”

There are things, the man says, that are too precious to be bought.

This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.  

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