The fight to end poverty and sickness from water pollution in Appalachia

Women’s March in Charleston, West Virginia, in January, 2017.


Editor’s Note: Paula Swearengin, from Appalachia, is a leader in the fight for clean water. President Trump just signed legislation undoing laws intended to protect waterways from coal mining waste. Paula speaks below about the illnesses resulting from water pollution in her home state of West Virginia.

You wouldn’t believe the poverty and sickness here. I lived in Iroquois, WV. The Sweeny Watershed provided water to our community.  It was a thriving community before the decline of coal. That community is gutted now. The poverty and drugs are horrible. People can’t afford to move.

A lot of people in the community were plagued with illness because of the water pollution. Our water growing up was orange and had a blue and purple film. My little sister was born with a birth defect. She has a cyst at the base of her brain the size of a golf ball. We moved when I was 12 years old. I thought my hair was red until that point in my life. When it grew out, when I wasn’t washing my hair with the water, I discovered that I was a brunette.

Right after we left, the community got together and was able to get hooked into another municipality. Then it was discovered that there were high levels of Manganese in the water. God only knows what else was in the water. Manganese is only one thing I discovered when reading over some documents from the litigation for a new municipality.

Even after people get clean water; there’s still a lifetime of health impacts. My little sister, my Mom, cousin and me—everybody coming out of there—has stomach issues.  Since that time I have lived in other areas with questionable water contaminates.  I have witnessed that my neighbor’s children have cancer. I have lived in communities with cancer clusters and other diseases caused by coal mining. Most of my family worked in the coal industry. I have buried so many of my family members that our family’s theme song feels like Amazing Grace. I have heard it sung at more than my fair share of funerals.

Trump won’t bring back jobs. Most of the people here voted for him because they’re against Clinton, gay rights and abortion.  That and the false promise to bring jobs back. Race doesn’t seem like the biggest issue here, especially in the southern district. There’s more anger against those living off welfare and those on drugs.

Why I’m so connected to Detroit is because it seems like our struggles are the same except they’re mostly Black and we’re mostly white. Greed seems to discriminate against people of color or if you are poor. It’s past time for a united effort.  This is supposed to be America. Nobody should fall short in prosperity and opportunity in any area of this nation.

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