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Coal River activist: 'We are all being used'

By Lorelei Scarbro, Special to CNN
  • Lorelei Scarbro comes from a long line of coal miners; husband died of black lung
  • She says Montcoal is grieving and terrified, but brave men still went to work after tragedy
  • Scarbro fights for the rights of miners and tries to to stop mountaintop coal removal
  • Scarbro: Massey Energy had violations and previous deaths

Editor's note: Lorelei Scarbro lives in the Coal River Valley, West Virginia, and is the daughter, granddaughter and wife of coal miners. She has been active in the fight to save rural schools and is now fighting for a clean and just energy future for West Virginia and the nation.

Montcoal, West Virginia (CNN) -- I am West Virginia born and raised, and I come from a long line of coal miners. My father, grandfather, brothers, husband and son-in-law either are or were coal miners.

My husband spent 35 years as an underground union coal miner and he died of black lung. I live near Coal River Mountain and my community is experiencing a tragedy.

The situation here, before this disaster, had already compelled me to become an environmental activist, committed to doing everything I can to stop the destructive practice of coal extraction known as mountaintop removal. I am not trying to stop all coal mining. I believe coal mining will be with us for a very long time, considering our enormous thirst for energy and our slow transition to renewable energy.

Throughout Appalachia, 2,000 miles of headwater streams have been destroyed and over 500 mountains have been decapitated by mountaintop removal. I stood by and did nothing until Massey Energy brought this fight to my door.

We don't yet know the names of all of the deceased and I dread the day when the list is read.
--Lorelei Scarbro

Three years ago, Massey applied for a permit to blow the top off the mountain behind my house. The company plans to level 6,600 acres of Coal River Mountain and turn it into a moonscape where no living, breathing thing can survive. I believe a higher and better use for this mountain is the Coal River Wind Project.

On Monday, April 5, an enormous explosion went off at the Upper Big Branch mine at Performance Coal Co., a subsidiary of Massey Energy. Thirty-one men in our community didn't come home that day.

We don't yet know the names of all of the deceased and I dread the day when the list is read and we, at last, know our connection to those who didn't make it.

I felt extremely blessed when I knew that my family members who worked at this mine were home and safe. I know many friends and neighbors will be among those we lost and I grieve for all of the families involved.

On April 6, many heartbroken and terrified families kissed their loved ones at the door and sent them off back to work underground. These very brave men enter these mines knowing their fate will probably be the same as their friends' on April 5 or the same as my husband's.

Now, although these very proud, brave and strong men make about $70,000 a year, if they had a choice, many of them would never go underground again. The problem is that we live in a mono-economy and there are no choices. The coal industry has a death grip in the state of West Virginia and we have some of the best politicians money can buy.

My husband spent 35 years as an underground union coal miner and he died of black lung.
--Lorelei Scarbro

We also have some very honest, good and environmentally friendly politicians. Their numbers are small and it is considered to be political suicide to do anything in West Virginia that appears to be anti-coal.

Many of our representatives have tunnel vision and refuse to advocate for job diversity in the coal fields. Coal is a finite resource, and no matter when you think, it will eventually run out -- someday we will have harvested all of the economically feasible coal.

When that day comes, how will the people we love support their families? I live at ground zero for mountaintop removal and because of the stand that I and many other people have taken to stop it, tensions run high in the coal fields. We are all being used by an outlaw industry and corrupt politicians and we are all driven by fear.

The men who work in surface mining are terrified they will lose their jobs. I am terrified that my granddaughter will not have clean drinking water when she is of child-bearing age if we don't stop this.

Massey Energy's record speaks for itself. With an enormous amount of violations and previous deaths at this mine, I will leave it to you to decide if this company puts profits before the safety of its workers or views its employees as a disposable commodity.

We are coping with this enormous tragedy, and sometimes tragedy brings communities together. I can only hope that something good will come out of all of this bad.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Lorelei Scarbro.