I will never forget the time I spent in Coal Country, USA. It was the year 2000, in the run-up to the presidential election - the first round of Bush - and I had decided to travel to rural America at election time to "take the pulse' of the people there. I found myself in Eastern Kentucky.
I remember being taken to the top of a local mountain to look out over the expansive view of the Appalachian Mountains. It was Autumn, and across the plains below us the trees were in full fall foliage. "How beautiful," I breathed. One of the girls who was with me muttered "you should see this in winter."
The first week I was in Eastern Kentucky, a local sludge pond collapsed and sent over 250 million gallons of coal slurry down into the adjoining valleys distorting people's backyards, destroying the streams, contaminating the water. Not a lot of attention was paid to this environmental disaster - greater in terms of volume than the Exxon Valdez crude oil spill off the coast of Alaska. There was a story in the New York Times on Christmas day - a day you know most people are far too distracted to read the newspaper.
It turned out that despite the coal company's assertions that this sludge pond collapse was, in their words, "an act of God," it wasn't. It was an act of negligence. The barrier between the sludge pond and the coal mine beneath supposed to be a minimum of 75 feet was no more than 10 feet in places. And the fine handed down to the company - Martin County Coal - was reduced from a relatively inconsequential $110,000 to a mere $5,600. Pocket change to Big Coal.
I met a lot of people while I was in there. Brilliant People. Proud of their heritage and their culture. Isolated too. Living in between the strip mines can be lonely sometimes.
One of them described to me how his house shakes and shudders whenever there's blasting going on nearby ... A local mayor described the increase in flooding in the locality. He showed me a map which with no ambiguity depicted how the flooding was directly related to strip mining in the local mountains.
I did go back to Eastern Kentucky in the dead of winter. And I did go back to look at that view. Exposed before me in the stark winter light was a land raped of its beauty. Mountain tops flattened. Scars running deep across the plains.
I remember being shocked. Hard to believe that this kind of disregard for people and their environs could take place in this country. And so, today, while all eyes are on the godforsaken coal miners in Sago, West Virginia, I wonder how long this story will last. How much attention will be paid to the story behind this story? Not much I'm sure. There will be some discussion of the lax oversight, the soft spoken reprimands and the light fines coal companies receive for breaking the law. And then there will be no more. Y'see, it's not sexy enough. This time next week the press's eye will have roved to another beautiful story. Another affair, another dalliance. And the people in Coal Country will remain behind, to fight their battles alone.
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