By Omar Farooq, ’16
Applications for SEEDS 2015 are due Friday, November 7 at midnight. To view this and other student reflections from SEEDS, check out their online journal archive.
Clunk! I heard an old, rusted metal switch go off. I was staring into a dark abyss. I made sure my eyes were open, fearing I had gone blind. Despite having about thirty people around me, this darkness brought about emptiness and loneliness. I had lost my bearings and was trapped. The dark coal walls seemed to be closing in towards me. To my relief, and that of everyone around me, the tour guide turned the lights back on.
Over the course of the SEEDS trip, we got a hands-on experience of being in a coal mine. The Beckley Mine was operational in the early 20th century. It was closed and then reopened in the 1950s. Much later, it was bought, renovated and turned into an exhibition. The exhibition not just includes an actual coal mine tour but also depicts different parts of a 1950s coal camp, like a church, school, superintendent’s house and miner’s shanty. However, above all my favorite part of the mine tour was when the tour guide turned off the lights in the mine.
After visiting a coal mines in War and Beckley, and hearing people’s stories, I was able to paint a picture of how it was to be a coal miner. Imagine yourself crouched, in a dark, suffocating place, putting in your blood and sweat eight hours a day to get a below average wage. Your happiness and fate was tied to that one-inch, yellow flame on top of the small carbide lamp. You did not know if you would be the seeing sunlight ever again.
The risks of the coal mining were enormous. For starters, you could be buried alive due to a cave-in. Moreover, working with dangerous heavy machinery could lead to fatal injuries. Machine nicknames like “the widow maker” were not misnomers. Additionally, your lamp, which is your last ray of hope, could trigger a methane gas or a coal-dust explosion. Adding to the list, you also could get poisoned due to dangerous gases like hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide. Even if you’re lucky to escape all of the above, health problems like the black lung disease will slowly kill you from the inside.
However, since the 1950s coal-mining practices have improved, either because of technological advancements or government regulations. Despite, through Scotty’s stories we learned about a lot of problems that still persist in the coal mining community. Mountain top removal, which is the main method of coal extraction in West Virginia, leads to deforestation, loss of habitat and eventually deprives people of clean ground water. It can also lead to atmospheric pollution due to the explosives used to blow up mountains. The lack of economic diversification in coal communities, as machinery replaces labor and as coal towns are abandoned, eventually leads to poverty. Poverty then, ends up becoming the root of health problems and poor education. Furthermore, people try to rely on false disability benefits, which is a burden on taxpayers. On top of that drug abuse worsens this vicious cycle.
There are two sides to every story and we need to consider the other side too. Coal mining does bring a source of livelihood to these people and coal is important to power the American economy. The solution to these problems is not to completely stop coal mining. Grass-root level steps make small differences over time but there also needs to be some top-down effort. Coal companies need to be more strictly monitored and regulated in terms of the externalities of their operations. Authorities need to make sure that removed mountaintops are reclaimed and there is a sustained supply of services like clean water, education and infrastructure to the people in the community. Secondly, steps need to be taken so the community is less dependent on coal by providing people other economic alternatives.
Stepping into the shoes of a coal miner was a life-changing experience. Hearing about all these problems, I got slightly disheartened at first. I felt like the actual service work we did over the trip had extremely little tangible effect on solving these problems. I began to ask myself questions. What could I do as an individual to help? Or can I even do anything significant that will help? The answers lied in the power of stories, service learning and spreading awareness. The knowledge of what is going around you is one of the most important weapons in your arsenal. By sharing this knowledge, we can empower people to make wise decisions and hence make this world a better place for the future generations. I will carry a part of West Virginia in my heart, wherever I go. Marsha and Scotty shared their stories to make an impact and now it’s my time to share mine.