In Coal Country, Another View On Mining

There was a national moment of silence on Monday to honor 29 miners in West Virginia who died last week, and the rescuers who tried to save them. Youth Radio's Willa Johnson lives in McRoberts, Ky., about four hours away from the Upper Big Branch mine, where the tragedy occurred. Johnson comes from a coal family, but now finds herself questioning the industry — and working against mining in her community.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

There was a national moment of silence today to honor 29 miners in West Virginia who died last week and the rescuers who tried to save them. Youth Radio's Willa Johnson lives in McRoberts, Kentucky, about four hours away from the Upper Big Branch mine where the tragedy occurred. Willa comes from a coal family, but she now finds herself questioning the industry and working against mining in her community.

WILLA JOHNSON: Almost every man in my family has worked in the coal industry. When I was six, my favorite game was to run down to meet my dad when I heard his coal truck coming up the road. He would stop, load me up in the driver's seat and pretend to let me park beside our house.

I was lucky. I never lost a family member to the mines, but in grade school, I had classmates who did. When I think about the families in West Virginia, I remember the faces of those kids who didn't have their dads at ballgames or school events.

One of those kids became a coal miner himself, and I can't help but wonder what crosses his mind right now. Maybe he's thinking this is our way of life. It's part of the job.

My grandfather has black lung, and my dad has slipped a disc in his back. I have an older brother who I can't talk to anymore. He still drives a coal truck and believes I have made him the enemy.

I constantly feel torn between two worlds: a community built around coal and an activist community trying to change it. Barbecues are tense when the person sitting across the table from you lost the mining job that you spend a great amount of time speaking against.

When a tragedy hits, suddenly my two worlds don't seem so disconnected. When I log onto my Facebook page, it's no longer environmentalists versus coal supporters. There are messages of sorrow from both sides. My heart goes out to the coal miners and their families in West Virginia, one very pro-coal family member posted. And then a message from an environmentalist friend appeared and said: Thoughts and heart going out to the miners and their families.

For the first time in three years, I feel a fleeting sense of unity that comes at much too high a cost. My friends my age are marrying men who work in the mines. The money is good, but it's not easy work, and the images from West Virginia are just another reminder of that. I want a different path for my family, for my children.

Coal still haunts people here in eastern Kentucky and scares them into thinking they can't live without it, but watching what's happened in West Virginia, how can we possibly live with it?

SIEGEL: Willa Johnson is a college student who works with the Appalachian Media Institute in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Her essay was produced by Youth Radio.

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