Lessons of Justice for College Students: Grandpa versus Big Coal

Lessons of Justice for College Students: Grandpa versus Big Coal
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"This is not an environmental issue. This is about a little human being." -- Ed Wiley (Grandpa) speaking to West Virginia Governor Manchin

While the media insults and labels the youth of every generation like an X or Y or Z (oh you Slackers, Echoes, and Netters), I instead see college students bringing energy and a common message of hope to the table: to make a difference in their lives and those of others. And in an Introduction to Law class, it is my job to find them real world cases to teach lessons of justice and injustice. So let's meet Ed Wiley and the kids at Marsh Fork Elementary School.

I came across a story from July 2005 about West Virginia's Marsh Fork Elementary School, which is situated 400 yards below a 2.8 billion gallon coal waste dam. 400 yards? 2.8 billion gallons. With the kids breathing coal dust and chemicals from the coal silo which sits 150 feet away. The only reason this is making any news is that the grandfather of one of the elementary school kids sat on the West Virginia Capitol steps and refused to leave until the governor addressed these rather serious concerns. The guy was just a little curious why the Department of Environmental Protection approved a permit for an additional coal silo adjacent to the school. He was just wondering why in a school of 200 students, three kids and four teachers had died of cancer. And with 240 significant safety violations since 1991, why nothing was being done, like building another school. Away from the madness. 2.8 billion gallons. 2.8 billion. School's not out. School's gone!

In 2008, Mr. Wiley went on a 455-mile hike to Washington, D.C. and actually got a meeting with United States Senator Robert Byrd. He started a web site, Pennies of Promise to raise money for a new school, and I eventually became the administrator of the organization's Facebook page, with many of my enthusiastic students joining the cause.

Truth be told, while grandpa was getting publicity for his cause, the money raised was a mere fraction of the $8,000,000 needed to fund a new school. But Mr. Wiley persisted, as attested to by his many supporters.

Francine Cavanaugh, co-director of On Coal River, a documentary about Mr. Wiley's West Virginia valley community surrounded by "lush mountains and a looming toxic threat." (Movie Review)

Ed Wiley is a former coal miner who worked at mines all over West Virginia, including one that threatened his granddaughter's elementary school. In the film, we capture his attempts to have the school relocated to safer ground, and he goes about it directly, and with conviction.

Bo Webb, a West Virginian and ex-Marine, who advocates against the mountaintop removal of coal:

Not much I can say about Ed that hasn't been said. He walked to DC to bring attention to the school. He can be a stubborn man, and he is also a good man, my long time friend, and a fine turkey hunter.

Jennifer Neeper Moore, Pennies of Promise Facebook member:

I was lucky enough to sit next to Ed on a northbound train a few years ago and get a personal lecture on the crisis at Marsh Fork. I think I cried continuously, but he was patient with me, and shared some brochures and a video which I dutifully distributed.

In 2009, I had a hint of resignation that grandpa might not round up the dough, when I wrote:

I smile because I'm not sure how far grandpa will get in raising money to move the school, but I do know he's learned an important lesson. When you are outmatched by the war chest or political clout of opponents, you need to be patient and search for their weak spot to find leverage. And in this case, grandpa's leverage is in the form of embarrassment through media attention.

Then came 2010. With the kiddies out for spring break, Marsh Fork Elementary became the media staging ground during the Upper Big Branch mine disaster which cost the lives of 29 miners. Now, the world was watching Massey Energy (Massey owns that mine and the silo and impoundment facing our school kids). The tragedy occurred mere weeks before the School Building Authority voted on allocating precious few funds to schools across West Virginia. Finally, the world was watching after Marsh Fork.

Thanks to a generous $2.5 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, the long march for a new elementary school for children in the besieged Coal River Valley hamlet of Sundial, West Virginia, has come to an end: A new school will now be built in a different location... Along with the Annenberg funds and a gift from the Coal River Mountain Watch, the school also received commitments of $2.6 million from the West Virginia School Building Authority, and $1.5 million from the Raleigh County Board of Education and Massey Energy, which is responsible for the whole mess of coal dust and the dangerous coal slurry impoundment.

This month, the Raleigh school board announced it had finalized the land purchase for the site of the new school. Bo Webb elaborated:

The new school will be built on Rt. 3 in Rock Creek. It will be built on a 27 acre site, a beautiful piece of property with a great view. All construction bid work will be out and chosen in time for start of construction June 2011. The school will be ready for August 2012 enrollment and occupation.

2012? Great, but these students still remain at risk until then, and as Mr. Biggers offered above: "Coal River Valley citizens still remain in danger of a potential catastrophe -- a 72-foot tidal wave of coal sludge--should the impoundment break. Such a breach could be on the scale of Buffalo Creek in the 1970's.

Real victories are hard to come by these days, but Ed Wiley proved that passion and persistence can deliver gratifying results. The takeaway lesson for my law students comes from Ben Franklin: By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. I think that Ben got it so right in his quote. But great words are far greater than the person who utters them, and the real hard work is putting those words into action.

By doing. Something.

Like NOW, you Slackers, Echoes, and Netters.

Perry Binder, J.D. is a legal studies professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Please join the Pennies of Promise Facebook page and follow Perry's tweets at http://twitter.com/perry_binder.

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