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Post Traumatic Stress that never ends

Coal mining in the Southern Appalacians of Kentucky is wreaking havoc on the lives of its inhabitants, writes
Stephen McGuire.

She is going to be in Mrs. Young’s first grade class this year. A heady veteran and graduate of kindergarten, dark-eyed Lilly wonders if she will cry this year like she did last year. 

She doesn’t like to think about that, but the loud noises scared her—scared a lot of kids in her class—and the blasting on the mountain above the school hasn’t stopped. Lilly can’t imagine that it ever will.  

She has never known a time in her short life when there wasn’t dynamite blasting somewhere, shaking her house and cracking the walls of her bedroom, right by her stuffed tiger. 

She hears her mom crying at night, and Lilly wants to comfort her. But she’s afraid, too. When her mom is scared, Lilly doesn’t know what to do. Sometimes she brings her tiger and sits in her mom’s lap, holding her in her little arms. Sometimes, she just scoots under the covers, pretending that they live in a castle far away, and her mom is the queen and Lilly is the most beautiful princess in the world. In her mom’s kingdom, the mountains are safe, and little kids don’t cry at school every day. 

Josh will be entering fifth grade. He’s a big boy now, and helps out on his dad’s farm, the same place his grandparents had. It pleases him to help, and he likes showing his muscles to anyone who wants to see them, especially his friends.

Publicly, he thinks that girls are stupid and icky and scaredy-cats. Privately, he remembers crying too. Some days, even now, it is hard for him not to cry, and he wants to run home and get close to his mom. But he wouldn’t ever tell anyone that—he’s all grown up now. 

At recess, when his class goes out to play, he always looks at the huge coal silo close to the school. There is blasting and the ground shakes, and sometimes Josh sees the dam on the hill. It fascinates him, looking up at the 385 foot dam. He’s heard about what’s behind it, but he doesn’t really know. 

All he knows is that it is a part of his dreams at night, like a bad shadow or something dreadful under his bed. He tries not to think about it, but it fascinates him anyway. He wonders if he is strong enough to hold it back if it breaks. The bell rings, and Josh looks down at his shoes, black with coal dust. 

appalaciansJeremy never got a chance to go to school. On August 30, 2004, at 2.30 in the morning, he was crushed to death in his bedroom by a thousand pound boulder. A bulldozer, operating without a permit on a mountaintop removal site above Jeremy’s home, dislodged the boulder. It rolled 200 feet dow the mountain before it entered Jeremy’s house. 

Debra and Granville Burke had a nice life and a nice home, until 1998. That was the year that Tampa Energy Company started blasting the ridgetops above McRoberrts in Martin County, Kentucky. The blasting above their house cracked and destabilized the foundation of their house. 

Because of the defoliation, floods came with a vengeance. In a ten day period, there were three separate hundred-year floods. The Burke’s garden was flooded and rendered useless. They had depended on that garden to grow enough food to get them through the winter. 

On Christmas morning, 2002, Debra Burke ended her life. Her husband wrote to the local paper: 

"She left eight letters describing how she loved us all but that our burdens were just getting too much to bear. She had begged for TECO to at least replace our garden, but they just turned their back on her. I look back now and think of all the things I wish I had done differently so that she might still be with us, but mostly I wish that TECO had never started mining above our home." 

Nearly 80% of Letcher County, Kentucky residents still do not have running water. Children in Letcher County, according to an Eastern Kentucky University study, suffer from an inordinately high rate of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and shortness of breath. These are the symptoms of what is known as ‘blue baby syndrome.’ 

Medical researchers traced the source to sedimentation and dissolved minerals that have drained from mine sites into the local streams. 

Erica Urias lives along a creek in Grapevine, Kentucky. She has to bathe her two year old in contaminated water because there is no clean water available to her.

Coal companies continue to blast away the tops of mountains. They use ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel, just as Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma to bring down the Federal building there. 

Each coal company detonation is ten times more powerful than McVeigh’s, and there are thousands of such blasts every day in the Southern Appalachians. Forest and topsoil—which the coal industry calls ‘overburden’—are stripped from the mountain and thrown into the valleys, filling them. 

Lilly doesn’t know all of this. Neither does Josh. But they know they’re afraid, and that it isn’t going to end. It’s a part of their lives, like a bad shadow or something dreadful under the bed.

Stephen McGuire is a writer, philosopher and child of Appalacia. He blogs at Open Salon.

Image courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltion. School is the set of small red rectangles just to the right of the white silo.

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