We arrived back in New York after two days in Charleston, West Virginia, apparently the only travelers on the entire eastern seaboard whose flights had not been canceled. Normally my sympathy for airline delays would be boundless, but we’d just returned from a place with no usable water, and that tends to skew one’s misery yardstick.
My personal impression of the small city–where not one but two toxic spills have happened in the past month–was not, unfortunately, how extreme or unique the devastation in West Virginia is, it was how familiar the place felt. The rounded, wooded mountains are so much like the Catskills; the houses and streets look so much like the village where I went to high school; the polluted stream we stood next to is so much like the stream at the end of the lake where I spent summers.
There’s no coal extraction in the Catskills, but the gash of pipeline right-of-ways are as jarring as when seen upstate. Tanks of chemicals in West Virginia are just like what you see all over the place in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey, or in the industrial stretch of any town or city. That a spill, leak or explosion isn’t a daily occurrence, that it hasn’t happened to every town, every city, every day, is the surprise, because the same ingredients for disaster are all around.
The sense of fatalism that locals described, having lived through generations of terrible and ongoing economic prospects, is familiar both from my upstate hometown and the ungentrified urban neighborhood where I live now. The choices are so limited, so short term. You take what you can get, celebrate a new truck or enjoy a beer at the local hang out, try not to think about the worst of it. When there are no big picture solutions suggested, a narrow focus is a healthy defense mechanism.
The strength of people also shines through. Despite no safe water for more than a month, people are unfailingly polite, friendly, helpful, getting through, making the best of it. The activists especially. We were honored to meet them all.
West Virginia isn’t an anomaly. It’s only a slightly more extreme demonstration of the rule, the standard, the current deal. It truly is a canary in a coal mine, it is the predictor. When industry gets its way, full on, unrestricted, this is the result. That applies to coal, to fracking, to tar sands. They have no brake pedal.
Flying over the endless vista of mountains one imagines them thinking, not, “how could we ruin all this beauty?” but, “ALL THAT COAL. ALL THAT MONEY.” I imagine their vision being a flattened plateau, mountaintops blown off, valleys filled in, the ultimate perfect result of their extraction. What’s to stop them? There’s nothing in their way but some people.