Sunday, September 16, 2012

Blowing the Whistle on Peabody's Coal Train

I'm reposting this from Dave Scott, a teacher in Saint Louis and former resident of West Virginia. It's a great piece on the city, Peabody, and the very real harm that being in bed with corporations can wreak on communities. If you want to fight back then please try and make it out to a meeting this Thursday at 6:30 PM at the World Community Center (438 North Skinker). We'd love to see you there!
            I’m writing to you today as a transplant to the great city of St. Louis. It’s been almost ten years since I said goodbye to the country roads and green rolling hills of West Virginia where I lived the first 29 years of my life. Since then, I’ve spent nine years in our schools getting to know the city through the eyes of my students. This is the time of year when I’m typically arranging new music, and planning performances for my high school band; however, I received some sad news this week that's turned my attention back to the Mountain State. I write to you today in memoriam of the longtime environmental activist, Larry Gibson, from Kayford Mountain, WV.

            Larry Gibson spent his entire life on the property that had been passed through his family for generations. During the late 1980’s, when Mountaintop Removal became the primary mining technique used in the region, Gibson found himself surrounded by the constant blasting and toxic dust storms created by coal companies as they forever change the Appalachian skyline. It’s fair to say that he didn’t become an activist by choice. Watching the life on his mountain home explode into a dusty moonscape was just the beginning of his ordeal.

You see, coal isn’t the only thing that lies under the surface in West Virginia. Through the process of blasting away the mountaintops, many toxins and carcinogens are pulverized into one poisonous mixture which is either discharged into the wind, or simply bulldozed onto the rivers and valleys below. The latest study conducted by Dr. Michael Hendryx at West Virginia University suggests that the airborne sulphur, silica, and other particulate matter that drifts miles away from the surface mines is responsible for increases of cancer, kidney disease, and other ‘unexplained’ illnesses that are plaguing the coal fields. Other studies conducted by Duke University and WVU have also found high levels of selenium, cadmium, chromium, lead, and arsenic downstream from the mountaintop removal sites, and in well water nearby. Over 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams, which were once home to a diverse population of fish and wildlife, have been covered by these valley fills. In many cases, ground water that had been depended upon for more than a hundred years has been contaminated.

            According to the research performed by Appalachian Voices in 2006, there is a very direct correlation between mountaintop removal sites and the most poverty-stricken counties of the region. This is no coincidence; the more affluent people of New York and Pennsylvania would never stand for the permanent destruction of the Catskills or the Poconos. The state of West Virginia, which has been characterized for generations as having the most corrupt politicians in the country, has allowed coal companies to operate without paying taxes for several decades. Of all the characteristics of my home state that I would love to see here in St. Louis, it’s a shame that political companionship with the mining industry offers the most remarkable similarity.

One of the responsible parties for the environmental destruction throughout Appalachia is a familiar name in the St. Louis region, and a part of our own skyline. It’s from behind the tinted windows above Keiner Plaza that Peabody Energy operates the corporate machinery used for drilling away at EPA regulations and the pensions of retired miners. Don’t believe for one second that this apparatus isn’t being used on St. Louis. According to the analysis attached to the Peabody tax abatement proposal of 2012, our city’s public schools are expected to lose 1.96 million dollars over the next decade. That money would be very useful in hiring more reading specialists, more math specialists, and more classroom teachers.

As a teacher, it pains me to tell you how these coal companies have demonstrated their disdain for public schools in West Virginia. Their operations around Marsh Fork Elementary forced teachers to remove coal dust from the chalkboards every morning. In this small rural school, there were four teachers and two former students diagnosed with cancer over a six year span. In 2012, the school was forced to relocate due to the building of a containment pond which houses millions of gallons of heavily polluted water known as coal slurry directly adjacent to school property. According to, these earthen dams that are built to hold this toxic sludge have failed sixty five times over the years, leaving those local communities and wildlife habitats devastated.

Here in St. Louis, our public schools may not be in eminent danger of a coal dust explosion or a flash flood of coal slurry, but they are victims of the mining industry nonetheless. Allowing Peabody to exist in our city with a free pass on school funding is nothing short of depraved indifference. While our schools have been concentrating their efforts on accreditation, they are also responsible for serving the ten meals that many of our students count on each week in addition to their one shot at the American dream. Our schools aren’t failing, as much as our local leaders and businesses are failing them. It’s not the intentions of this corporate giant to answer the prayers of those who hope that their children will escape the poverty and crime that curse our city. However, it is our mayor’s duty to protect us from corporations who would take a government freebie with one hand while stealing opportunities from our children with the other.

It’s evident that the Peabody Corporation has actually found a source of renewable energy here in St. Louis. It’s called political power. The utility rates may run a little higher during the election cycle, but buying elections is what keeps the lights on at Peabody- that is unless we, the taxpayers of St. Louis, decide to throw the switch. Just like Larry Gibson from Kayford Mountain, we have no choice in St. Louis. We can no longer afford to support a mayor who will offer this company a tax shelter five hundred miles away from the destruction along Coal River, or within one mile of the poverty here in our city. The people of St. Louis expect corporations to pay their fair share in taxes like the rest of us. That new banner atop the Peabody Building boasts of the company’s record of ‘helping people’; it seems feasible that someone in the city government could demand that they live up to the simplicity of that slogan and pay their share in municipal taxes.

 Larry Gibson, the man affectionately known as the Keeper of the Mountains said, “They tell us we’re collateral damage. Well, I ain’t collateral damage. I’m somebody.” As a parent and teacher, I’m here to tell you that the students of Saint Louis Public Schools are somebody too. They don’t deserve to be left behind by City Council, or the financiers of Mayor Slay’s reelection campaign. Please, make your plea to end Peabody’s tax abatement in the City of St. Louis. Call the Board of Aldermen at (314)-622-3287, or Mayor Slay’s office at (314)-622-3201.

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