I interviewed 69 year old Kathleen Dickens on February 7th, 2012 about the health problems that exist in her community, which is on the Marsh Fork of the Coal River in Raleigh County. Kathleen was the secretary of Marsh Fork High School for decades, and, as a result, she knows nearly everyone in the community, because she has watched generations come through the school.
During and after our interview, Kathleen talked about the incredibly high cancer rates in her community, which, she says, began in the 1980s. As she said, “most of the people that died in this area around here, from Stickney on down, died of some type of cancer. And it’s not just moms and dads. A lot of the kids, as they got older, 19, 20, or whatever, died with some type of cancer also.” Our conversation focused on the indisputable connection between coal mining and poor health—whether it’s coal miners, local residents, or workers in other professions, irresponsible coal mining practices have polluted the air, water, and people of the Coal River Valley and the rest of Appalachia’s coal mining region.
Map Courtesy of JourneyUpCoalRiver.org
In addition to the known occupational hazards of being a coal miner—such as black lung—companies’ irresponsible practices lead to extra dangers for their workers. Kathleen touches on this subject, when she talks about a man who fell into a vat of chemicals at a processing plant and was not rescued for half an hour.
Supporting what the nineteen health studies prove, Kathleen found that health effects have been worse with proximity to coal mines. Kathleen explained that the cancer problems have been worst starting at the high school and continuing down river. Many teachers and students at the high school had cancer, and clusters of people in the towns down river had cancer too, as these are the areas most intensely surrounded by MTR sites, underground mines, and processing plants.
Towards the end of the interview, Kathleen talked about how the pollution comes from so many different sources. The sawmills on the Coal River used CCA (chromium 6, copper, and arsenic) to treat lumber. This dangerous chemical infiltrated the Edwight community’s water supply, leading to major health problems there. Sawmills only started using this chemical when the coal companies demanded that their lumber be “treated,” so as not to rot underground. Her story showed how the coal industry influences practices in many other industries too. This treated lumber is still affecting communities today: old mines that have the treated lumber in them routinely fill with rain water, which then goes into the river, supplying residents with CCA-contaminated drinking water.
We all know that cancer and other health problems exist everywhere, but Appalachia’s coal mining communities have been shown to have cancer rates twice as high as non-mining areas.