Editor’s note: The People’s Tribune interviewed Paula Swearengin, part of the Direct Action Welfare Group and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in West Virginia.
“I come from a long line of coalminers. My grandfather died of black lung. My dad died of cancer and black lung. My stepfather died of heart disease and black lung. My uncle died of black lung. Here in West Virginia we have a singular industry based economy. Most of our economic value depends on this one industry.
“In the little coal towns where we grew up, everybody’s water was filthy dirty with manganese and other toxic coal industry chemicals. I was sick all the time. Back in the ‘80s my step-dad got laid off from the coalmines and my family had to move to North Carolina to make a living. I remember thinking how clean and beautiful it was. I didn’t have to breathe the coal dust and we had water that was clean and fresh, not dirty. The water that came out of the faucet in West Virginia was thick and orange, full of chemicals. My mother gave us a bath and it had purple film on top. My hair was orange when I moved. Half of my little brother’s graduation class had lost their teeth. A lot of people had mental diseases, come to find out it was the water. This is what happens here. Nobody puts value on us. It’s like living in a sacrifice zone. They say, ‘Let the poor die, lets go ahead and dig that coal.’
“After the unions came into West Virginia, we said ‘we have value, we’re human beings, we don’t want to live like this anymore.’ But back in the 80s they busted the unions. They brought in non-union coal companies that the miners called scab mines. They dangled a carrot in front of people’s noses. People got maybe $15 an hour, nicer houses and vehicles. Then came another bust and they were living on welfare again.
“The leadership here doesn’t really support us. We have the best-paid politicians the coal industry can buy. They own us. It’s like the mafia.
“Today, coalminers are worrying about putting food on their table, and the water is still toxic. They’re saying, ‘You’re poisoning my child.’ But we’re divided in this state. There needs to be an awakening, but our government and the coal industry pit us against each other. I want to organize an environmental event in Washington, DC, for humanity with our allies in other cities. It seems like the government is taking everyone’s basic needs; if not water, then basic utilities. It’s going to take national collaboration. I went to the water gathering in Detroit [where thousands have been cut off water] to find some solidarity. I want to let everyone know that, white, Black, any nationality, when you are poor, you’re ready to unite against injustice, and the poor from Appalachia are willing to stand with any community to make it better.”