by Willa Johnson, Appalachian Media Institute
My childhood memories include the smell of coal dust and the sound of diesel engines roaring. Almost every man in my family has worked in the coal industry. When I was six my favorite game was to run down to meet my dad when I heard his coal truck coming up the road. He would stop, load me up in the driver's seat with him and pretend to let me park it beside our house. I imagined I was captain of a pirate ship sailing through the seas.
It wasn't until I was older and began making friends away from my small town in Kentucky that it hit me that my childhood was unique. Part of me hated it here, especially when my grandfather talked about the "coal boom." Instead of the dreary town that I knew, he described a city with stores, roller rinks, even movie theaters; now all we have are schools and churches.
At some point, I began to question coal as a way of life. My grandfather has black lung and my dad has slipped a disk in his back. I have an older brother who I can't talk to anymore; he still drives a coal truck and believes I have made him the enemy. Truthfully I can't decide if he is the unsung victim or the unsung hero here in the mountains.
I have turned my back on Mountain Top Removal while people in my family get their paychecks from it. It's become the quick and cheap way for companies to get their profits, as coal grows scarce in our region. People say that I am ungrateful and that I don't understand, but I do. I grew up with my house shaking from the explosions blowing the mountainside off. I know what it feels like to not be able to breathe the air on certain days because it is so thick with dust.
But layoffs are spreading across the region, and local activists like me are feeling the heat. Summer barbecues are tense when the person sitting across the table from you just lost the mining job that you spend a great amount of time speaking against. It's not easy feeling like you're fighting the people you love.
We're clinging here to something that can't last forever. People want greener ways of keeping their lights on. America wants to reduce its carbon footprint. The "coal boom" was a romantic era in my family's history. Now it's over - never to return.
That's not true in the rest of the world. I traveled to Colombia, South America this summer and witnessed a coal boom there, the kind of boom that old men here in Kentucky speak of with nostalgia while sipping coffee.
Colombian men wear the same branded work shirts that my dad wore when I was a child. The dusty air smelled like home, and the people carried the weight of choosing either economic growth or their land, much like the people in Kentucky. Everyday, all day long, uncovered coal trains rush through communities that look like mine, shaking homes and occasionally killing people. A young girl in one town I visited, who was probably my age, stepped forward and shyly asked when she would see me again. She wanted to know I heard her.
Standing there next to that girl, I felt like a hypocrite, giving her false hope.
Her livelihood and the livelihood of people working the mines depend on the coal that is destroying their community. They can't turn their backs on this black rock any more than I can. So they work for better conditions for workers, but union members say they constantly fear being targets.
And all of this is to supply faraway cities with power.
In Colombia, the coal will run out, and all that will remain will be a society of forgotten people unsure how to move forward in a world that doesn't revolve around one industry. Coal still haunts people here in Eastern Kentucky and scares them into thinking they can't live without it, when they don't even realize in so many ways we already live without it.
Also from Youth Radio:
- Youth in Copenhagen: The Silent Roar
- Growing Up In A Coal Community
- Human Cost Of Prescription Drugs in Coal Country