The Coal Miner's Granddaughter

Meet the self-proclaimed Appalachian redneck fighting for the children in coal mining country.

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 4:35 PM EDT

Deep into Coal River Valley, a remote region of hollows in West Virginia's Raleigh County, the children of Marsh Fork Elementary attend school less than a quarter mile below a dam that holds back billions of gallons of toxic coal mine sludge—about 2.8 billion, depending on the season and the rains. At first, no one was alarmed when the dam began to leak a few years ago. Coal mining is such an all-consuming part of these hills that its dangers are almost generally accepted as a fact of life.

But in April 2004, when Ed Wiley picked up his granddaughter, Kayla, from school, he noticed that the recurring red splotches on her face and neck were worse than ever, and that the spunky fourth-grader seemed listless.

"Possum, buddy, you okay?" he recalls asking her. "Tears were running down her face. And she said, 'Gramps, these coal mines are making us sick.'"

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A self-described redneck—he's a 10th-generation Appalachian whose father was a trapper—Wiley cuts a distinctive figure with his slightly hunched gait, bulbous eyes, and camouflage baseball cap. Like most everyone else in the region, he'd spent most of his life working for the coal companies. But after that talk with Kayla, and doubting the school nurse's diagnosis that she had asthma, he started asking questions. He grew worried that arsenic, chromium, lead, manganese, and other carcinogens from the coal slurry might leak into water from the school's drinking fountains or the stream that runs by the schoolyard. Then an independent study of the air inside the school showed the children were likely breathing fine dust from the coal silo and other mining facilities only a few hundred yards away. A follow-up "visual" survey in August 2006 by the Environmental Protection Agency (in which no water or air samples were collected) confirmed that coal dust was present at the school, but said that no studies were available to determine the health risks.

That's when Wiley started looking into Marsh Fork, the dam he himself had helped build for the coal companies starting in 2000, a massive pile of rocks and soil across the valley. A similar dam at Buffalo Creek in nearby Logan County had burst suddenly one morning in 1972, killing 125 people, mostly women and children in their homes. If the Marsh Fork dam were to give way during school hours, Kayla and her classmates could drown within seconds.

A few Marsh Fork parents keep their children at home on days of heavy rain, fearing a dam collapse. Otherwise, Wiley says, the isolated community had been doing its best to ignore the potential catastrophe. "All the guys in the valley work for Massey," he says. "They like to walk around in their blue uniforms with red stripes and never take them off. They's all young guns, who say if we complain about the coal company, the company's going to leave us."

Haunted by what he'd learned, Wiley went to the local board of education and asked them to move the school. When that didn't work, he started gathering pennies from neighbors and friends—"Pennies of Promise," he called them—hoping to shame officials into taking action. In the summer of 2006 he marched for 40 days, alone, to the governor's mansion in Charleston, carrying a flag with a picture of Marsh Fork embroidered on it and a bag with $400 in pennies as seed money for a new school. A local news crew followed him as, with Kayla at his side, he confronted Gov. Joe Manchin, who promised to look into the issue and was quickly whisked away by aides.

Since then, Wiley has staged a hunger strike to temporarily stop construction of a second coal silo next to the elementary school, picketed the Today Show in New York, and been hauled off to jail for protesting outside the governor's office. "I've lost a few friends around here," he says. "But I've made some new ones" —young environmentalists, who consider him an inspiration.

Meanwhile, Massey subsidiaries are still planning to build a second coal silo right next to the school. And there seems little enthusiasm to move Marsh Fork, or to study the safety issue, from Manchin, who has followed through on promises to make West Virginia even more coal friendly.

Calls to Manchin's office were returned by his general counsel, Carte Goodwin, who said, "If there is a need and a justification for the closing of Marsh Fork Elementary and relocating it...that is an analysis and a decision that needs to be made by the residents of Raleigh County." Indignant, Raleigh County Board of Education president Rick Snuffer responded that, while he supported moving the school, it was unfair to ask one of the nation's poorest counties to pay for a situation created by one of its wealthiest industries. "The problem isn't the school," he said. "The problem is the coal mines, which came in after the school was there. Massey and the state of West Virginia created this mess, and they want to pass the buck to us."

Wiley says his campaign will continue; Kayla has graduated to middle school, but he has two grandchildren old enough to start kindergarten at Marsh Fork in the next few years. "I wake up every morning worrying about what could happen to all those kids up there."

If he ever succeeds, Wiley says, his next campaign will be to protect wildlife endangered by strip-mining and mountaintop removal. "My eyes have been opened to a lot of things," he says. "I've started down a whole new road in my life."

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.