06/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Daughter of Coal Country Speaks to the Silence

Originally published on, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe. (Produced in collaboration with the Appalachian Media Institute)

By: Willa Johnson

My childhood memories include the smell of coal dust and the sound of diesel engines roaring. Almost every man in my family has worked in the coal industry. When I was six my favorite game was to run down to meet my dad when I heard his coal truck coming up the road. He would stop, load me up in the driver's seat and pretend to let me park it beside our house. I imagined I was captain of a pirate ship sailing through the seas.

I was lucky. I never lost a family member to the mines. But in grade school, I had classmates who did. When I think about the families in West Virginia, I remember the faces of those kids who didn't have their dads at ball games or school events. One of those kids became a coal miner himself, and I can't help but wonder what crosses his mind right now. Maybe he's thinking: "This is our way of life. It's part of the job." At some point, I began to question that, and fight against it. I can't think of any other job where when someone dies, it's part of the job, and not a tragedy.

My grandfather has black lung and my dad has slipped a disk in his back. I have an older brother who I can't talk to anymore; he still drives a coal truck and believes I have made him the enemy. Truthfully I can't decide if he is the unsung victim or the unsung hero here in the mountains.

I have turned my back on Mountain Top Removal while people in my family get their paychecks from it. It's become the quick and cheap way for companies to get their profits, as coal grows scarce in our region. Barbecues are tense when the person sitting across the table from you just lost the mining job that you spent a great amount of time speaking against. It's not easy feeling like you're fighting the people you love.

I constantly feel torn between two worlds -- a community built around coal, and an activist community trying to change it. When a tragedy hits, suddenly my two worlds don't seem so disconnected. When I log onto my Facebook page, it's no longer environmentalists verses coal supporters.

There are messages of sorrow from both sides. "My heart goes out to the coal miners and their families in West Virginia," one very pro-coal family member posted. And then a message from an environmentalist friend appeared and said "thoughts and heart going out to the miners and their families."

For the first time in three years, I feel a fleeting sense of unity that comes at much too high a cost.

When I graduate from college, I hope to return home to become a community organizer. I want to show that you can come from a coal mining family and still question the industry. My friends my age are marrying men who work in the mines. Many of the guys who graduated from my high school class have been in the mines for years. The money is good, but it's not easy work. And the images from West Virginia are just another reminder of that. I want a different path for my family, for my children. The booming coal town my grandfather describes with stores and roller rinks doesn't exist anymore. It hasn't for a long time, and every year, layoffs spread across the region.

We're clinging here to something that can't last forever. Coal still haunts people here in Eastern Kentucky and scares them into thinking they can't live without it, but watching what's happening in West Virginia, how can we possibly live with it?

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More on this topic:

Appalachian Media Institute
Center for Rural Strategies
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

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