Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia, has been a lightning rod of controversy since 2005, when Massey Coal bought out Peabody Coal and began a massive coal mining operation and coal cleaning operation in the vicinity of the school.
The facts are jaw-dropping, and really make me wonder what true family values mean to politicians locally and nationally. Students in this school have suffered from health problems for years, far beyond what one might expect in a random population.
In a letter written to the governor in 2005, concerned parents wrote that were “children coming home from the school with breathing difficulties, sore throats, headaches, and other health problems, including a seventeen-year-old who had attended the school and died from ovarian cancer, another seventeen-year-old former student who was fighting ovarian cancer, three teachers who had died from cancer in the past six years, and yet another who is currently fighting cancer. We gave you flyover photos of the coal operation and its close proximity to the school. We gave you taped video of mothers with very sick children who attend the school. We expressed our concerns about the preparation plant behind the school and the chemicals that we suspect are on the grass in the playground and inside the school, including coal dust from the coal silo a mere 200 feet from the school. We showed you other photos of the 1849 acre surface mine site directly above the toxic sludge dam that hovers over the school, adding surface runoff sediment to the dam. We reminded you of the Buffalo Creek disaster. You looked me square in the eye and asked for my home phone number stating that you would assemble a "team" and get back to me within 5-7 days. We never heard back from you, but we did discover that on June 29th, a short seven days later that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection under the direction of your chosen department leader, Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer, issued a permit to Goals Coal Company to add yet another coal loading silo behind the school.”
The governor never replied, but did send a team of inspectors to check the school for contaminants. The surprising result? They found none, although they later admitted that they did not check for chemicals or coal dust, only for mold and to see if the air filters had been changed.
In May of 2005, a citizens group conducted a survey of sixty households who had children attending the school and found that 91% of the children had respiratory problems, and more than 80% reported feeling sick at school with headaches and nausea.
The school sits 150 feet from a coal storage silo. Another 200 feet away is a coal cleaning facility, in which coal is bathed in more than sixty chemicals to prepare it for transportation to energy companies, who will burn it to make electricity. A coal sludge pond sits just a few hundred yards from the school, held back by a slate dam. The sludge pond contains 2.8 billion gallons of toxic waste, including such heavy metals as nickel, lead, mercury, arsenic, uranium and cadmium. This is an amount 50 times larger by volume than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Should the dam break, most of the children would be immediately exposed to this sludge, and the probability that they would die is almost certain. The sludge pond sits so close to the school that there would be no time for evacuation. Though more than 200 serious violations of safety for dam construction have been noted, coal company officials and government officials, including the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection insist that the children are not at risk.. A mountain top removal operation is also nearby, with continual blasting going on during the school day.
There have been repeated requests to build another school for these children, somewhere away from the destruction and the danger. Yet the West Virginia government continues to deny that a problem exists, and the state school board still has no plans to build another elementary school.
Ed Wiley, a grandfather of a student at the school, has started a program to pay for a new school. It is called Pennies For Progress, and asks donations to raise enough money to pay for a new school. The school superintendent said that a new school would cost about $5 million. Wiley’s granddaughter donated all the pennies she had in her piggy bank, and there have been several donations from students in the US who have heard of the plight of the students at Marsh Fork. All of the pennies were taken to the lobby of the capital, to be presented to the Governor.
There are still no plans to build a new school.
Watch this video on Google Earth's site for a look at what mountain top removal is, and how destructively it transforms the environment: