(02/16/2019)
By Dave Peyton

For The Hur Herald 2016

Ken Hechler, former West Virginia congressman who celebrated his 100th birthday, said something many decades ago that has stuck with me ever since.

He said that the worst thing that ever happened to West Virginia was the discovery of coal within its borders.

Had coal not been discovered here, Hechler said, we would be more like Vermont or New Hampshire where it seems people respect their mountains and where life appears to be more joyful and sedate and the people less poor.

When I became a journalist for the Huntington newspapers nearly 50 years ago, the problems of this state were clear to me.

We were drowning in a sea of unregulated capitalism and abusive power brought on by out-of-state interests who were robbing us of our coal, oil, timber and gas and who were fortified by our elected officials who kowtowed to them.

I concluded we existed only for the big money people who didn't care about us but cared immensely for our natural resources and who were more than willing to sacrifice the people of this state for the money they could wring out of our mountains.

I decided to stay here and do what I could to change things, hoping that others felt the same way I did and that working collaboratively we could make things better.

Here it is 50 years later and nothing has changed.

If anything, it has gotten worse, more desperate, more dangerous, more deadly.

Imagine 300,000 people put in immediate danger by a two-bit chemical company that dumped a hundred thousand gallons of a dubious slurry in the water around Charleston, a few hundred yards upstream from where the local water company collects its water to serve people in nine counties.

The chemical is used to wash coal, but the first words out of the governor's mouth immediately following the spill was that the "accident" had nothing to do with the coal industry.

Not at all surprising since the coal industry owns him.

Although it didn't happen, I fully expected Governor Tomblin to declare the spill an "act of God."

Why?

The Buffalo Creek Flood in Logan county occurred 43 years ago, when the Pittston Coal Company's coal slurry impoundment dam, located on a hillside in Logan County, burst four days after having been declared 'satisfactory' by a federal mine inspector, 125 people died, injuring 1,200 more and damaging and destroying hundreds of homes.

A couple of days after the nightmare happened, Pittston declared it an "act of God."

And no one in state government took issue with the claim.

I have watched the decline of the state ever since that surrealistic tragedy.

I have watched our mountains destroyed, our streams poisoned and obliterated and our precious land decimated by runaway greed.

Nothing has changed for the better in those 43 years.

And that makes me sad because I thought I could make a difference and I didn't.

It's as if all those words I wrote about the fate of my native state meant nothing, contributed nothing, brought no change.

The same forces that allowed Pittston to get away with murder will no doubt allow the people of Freedom Industries to escape with a slap on the hand or perhaps less.

And those same forces hold West Virginians hostage while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Politicians will cry crocodile tears (Senator Manchin is the grand master of this), but only until the licorice smell abates in the water, the national press leaves and life returns to a semblance of West Virginia normalcy which is far from normal.

Those elected to public office will continue to bloviate prior to the election but forget about the people who elected them to public office the day after they are elected.

We know this will happen, yet we continue to elect them.

It has been that way for as long as I can remember.

What in the world is wrong with us?

Is it our innate fatalism?

Do we believe the guff from our fire-and-brimstone preachers who suggest that God is punishing us for unspecified past sins and we deserve what befalls us?

Are we lacking logic or education?

Of is it fear - fear to change our state because of the uncertainty of an unknown future?

Maybe all of this and more.

Whatever the reasons, this state will continue to suffer disasters until things change.

Until then, I will continue (to paraphrase poet Robert Frost) to have a lover's quarrel with West Virginia.

-Dave Peyton is a retired columnist for The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington and The Daily Mail in Charleston.


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