by SUE SHARPS
Sylvester is a small community tucked neatly away in the mountains of the southern coal fields of West Virginia. According to the dictionary, a community is "all the people living in the same place and subject to the same laws." As anyone who has ever lived in a small communityknows--that really doesn't describe a community very well.
A community is a place where people really care about each other, a place where people still believe in helping each other. People in a community rake leaves or shovel snow for their elderly neighbors, and they are there to lend a hand when there is an illness or death in the family. In the summertime, people sit on their front porches and talk to their neighbors. They have cookouts, and invite the neighbors over to swim in their pool.
Over the past two and a half years, I've noticed a change in the town. It started slowly, at first, hardly noticeable. It was like one day you woke up and noticed that not too many people were sitting on their porches. You didn't see people out walking for exercise. Of course, I'd noticed the coal dust on my porch and in my pool, but I was waiting for someone to do something about it, just like everyone else! Soon people were comparing notes and swapping coal dust stories. It took awhile. West Virginians are easy-going people--slow to anger.
For two and one half years, Elk Run Coal Company has been dumping coal dust on our town and for twoyears, we have been trying to get something done about it! We've complained to the DEP, various other state agencies, OSM, gone before the Surface Mine Board, been to hearings, town meetings and even met with coal company officials. All we've come up with is EMPTY PROMISES!
To people who have never dealt with a problem like this, it is very hard to understand what we mean when we say we have a coal dust problem. They think: "Well, what's a little dust?" I want you to use your imagination for me:
* Take two jars of baby powder and dump them in a large baggie--maybe the gallon size. This is where you have to use your imagination. Now pretend this powder is BLACK and that it contains diesel fuel and other chemicals that are used in making synfuel. Get a plate and dump about a fourth of the 'dust'on it, set it on the coffee table and turn the ceiling fan on. Leave the fan on until the plate is empty. My, doesn't the living room look nice all covered in DUST? Notice how it clings to the carpet, drapes and furniture. use your imagination and change the color of the dust from white to BLACK.
* Now take another quarter of the 'dust'and sprinkle it on your porch and porch furniture. Sit back and relax in one of the chairs. Doesn't the 'dust' make your clothes look nice?
* Take another fourth of the dust and gently sprinkle it on your freshly washed car, remembering all the while that this is BLACK DUST. Be sure to start the car and turn the heater on so the dust gets sucked into the car.
* Finally, what do you do with the last quarter of the dust. It really doesn't matter what you do with it! Because no matter where you put it--It's going to get ALL over everything--EVERYWHERE!
People were JUST PLAIN FED UP! All of government was telling us: "No one should have to live like this!" But, yet we were.
The community pulled together and circulated a petition to make the company see that we were serious about getting something done about the dust level and to raise awareness about the problem. The problem with the dust didn't start until the company moved the prep plant to our side of the mountain. Everyone who lives in a coal community knows that they will ahve to deal with some dust. We were all used to dust--but not at this level.
The mountain had protected use from the blowing dust until they cut the mountain down and put that prep plant right on top of it. That just opened the way, like a tunnel, for the dust to float down on top of us. A violation was written, and a cessation order issued. DEP Director Mike Castle rescinded the order and offered an alternative solution. The solution involved making the coal company pay the "town" of Sylvester $100,000 to use for a civic project so theminers wouldnt' have to be out of work for three days. Well, that didn't take care of the problem! The dust is still there!.
Many meetings and hearings took place, and now the town of Sylvester is in mediation with the coal company and DEP to try to work out a way to...Well, I'm not sure that they're trying to do.The only right, decent, legal thing to do is STOP THE DUST! How? Maybe that's what they're trying to figure out. I don't know the answer to the dilemma. I have some ideas--but NO ONE IS LISTENING. The law says for them to prevent damage. How can anyone know how much damage has already been done to the tiny lungs of children who have played in the town for the two years that this has been happening? Is it going to take a 10-year-old child dying from BLACK LUNG Disease before our government does something to benefit the people just because it is the right thing to do?
We are prisoners in the very homes we worked so hard to pay for. We can't use our porches, or porch furniture or swimming pools. In warm weather we can't leave our doors or windows open because the dust comes inside. Our attics are full of coal dust; our insulation ruined and our sidewalks black with coal dust. It's in our furnaces, our air conditioner filters and air cleaners. Even keeping the doors and windows shut doesn't keep it out. Somehow it manages to creep inside the house and get in the carpet and drapes. When you dust, it's on the tables and fan blades. sometimes it manages to get inside the kitchen cabinets. Children who play in the yard come in the house looking like they have been working in the mines. I've even found coal dust inside my computer. You wash it off today and tomorrow it's back.
Unlike the Ghost Busters song "who ya gonna call?"-- it seems to us that we don't have anyone to call. The state agencies who should be 'Dust Busters' don't seem to care. If they did, we wouldn't still be putting up with this after two and a half years. We need an air quality standard for WV. EPA standards are NOT good enough for here! Dust is too concentrated in WV!