Being Agents of Change – Wheeling, WV

Our group received an awakening shock on our fourth day in Wheeling, WV. For the past three days we met with members of the community, with representatives for extractive industries and with opponents of these industries. We heard their explanations for what they did and why, about their personal experiences and perspectives that influenced their decisions and what they wanted for the future. We learned a lot about West Virginia, the lives of the people who call it home, and how central coal mining has been to its culture and history, and it was all really great. However, we were also talking about these activities and their implications without many of us having seen more than pictures or videos of what was being done.

IMG_2300Now it was Wednesday, and we were looking down at a mountaintop. Over several decades, the mountain had been dug up, starting at the peak and working down. Rock from the inside of the mountain was broken apart to collect the coal inside. The gravel that remained was piled into smooth, artificial-looking hills on old digging sites in accordance with the state and federal standards of restoration. But mountains like this, icons of West Virginia’s rich history and of its very identity, could not simply be put back together after being disturbed so extremely. Even as we drove our van away from the mining site, the cloudy orange streams on the roadside reminded us of the “restored” mountains, that when it rained water would seep through the gravel and pick up mercury and lead and other hazardous substances – formerly sealed safely in the rock – and carry them all the way to the rivers.

That evening, when it was time for us to come together to reflect on our day, everyone was silent. We were still shocked, and even heartbroken, over everything that we had learned that day, and the issues surrounding it seemed more towering than the mountain we would never get to see. For a while, all we could talk about was how much we couldn’t see a solution. We had seen how clearly destructive mountaintop removal was and how even the spokespeople for the coal mining and gas drilling industries didn’t want the negative effects of operations like these. Yet there was a national demand for energy and even renewable resources had their drawbacks. We were all so overwhelmed it felt like we would just keep sinking deeper into a sense of hopelessness. One of our group leaders reminded us that we were all there for a reason, and encouraged us to continue thinking.

IMG_2332As we continued our discussion, we really came to understand just how lasting the impact of extraction activities would be and how much danger it posed to the people involved. Renewable resources just didn’t have that problem. If nothing else, there was little enough coal left in the world to mine that very soon the cost of digging it up would exceed the profit of continuing to mine it and the current procedures for drilling natural gas threatened to do even more damage to the water table. One thing was clear: there had to be something better than what was currently being done. With this lesson learned, and a renewed sense of resolution with it, we were ready to continue our mission. Even after we have returned, we remember everything we experienced in West Virginia, and we maintain our resolution to promote positive change and be true agents of justice.


Gregory Skudlarek

College of Arts and Sciences 2017


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