The Tragic World of West Virginia

This email says it all about the tragic world of West Virginia.

Dear Mr. Leamer,

I read what you wrote in The Huffington Post last week. I have not read your book The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption in Coal Country, but as a native West Virginian I feel as though I know what it says. Growing up in Hurricane and unaffiliated with the mining community, I read the Gazette every morning at breakfast. Another meth lab bust and another polluted body of water. Flash floods and two trailers washed away with a family of seven and their dogs. Crazed addicts. Unemployment. The natural dam didn't hold. The new elected official had a long history in industry. Nepotism. An ever-shrinking population. Just when I thought it couldn't be any worse, the ever-present twist proved truth is stranger than fiction.

I couldn't wait to leave. As an environmentalist who accepted the fact of climate change, as a nature-lover who realized the destruction of the landscape by the coal industry, as a young person who felt limited by the attitude of the people, I knew my future wasn't here. Death and desperateness was here.

I studied at WVU. I studied international development. I saw what poverty did, and what it begat. I would rather devote my efforts elsewhere, not in a place plagued with apparent apathy. I went, travelled, lived elsewhere. I would describe my home state to outsiders as full of kind people, largely impoverished, lacking a future. West Virginia was a "developing" state in the United States. This analogy was embittered with my idea that it was full of people that wouldn't help themselves. West Virginians' stoic resoluteness was a source of pride and a curse. Their ability to support coal, no matter what, was to me unfathomable and unshakeable. I felt too impotent to try.

All of this changed when three weeks ago the New York Times headlines appeared on my phone: Don Blankenship was sentenced the maximum of one year to prison for the Upper Big Branch disaster. I was elated and saddened. One year for the deaths of 29 men. My frustrations for West Virginia, after five years away, came back full force. My fury mirrored the montages of a protagonist who trained for years in some distant place to suddenly and surprisingly decide to return and throw down. The UBB deaths are only the wretched tip of the tragedies. You know as well as I do the innumerous injustices that West Virginia has had to endure.

I had had a realization, the people did not have a voice. West Virginians' desperateness paired with long-time industry influence in politics made them so powerless as to lose their ability to speak out. They were disempowered. There was no one listening. Very few people had their best interests in mind when decisions were made.

The Making One Year Count letter-writing campaign was formed. The goal was to write one letter a day to Don Blankenship when he was in prison. We couldn't change the law, not for him anyways, but we could make that one year more meaningful. The notion of writing a letter to a villain so above the law, making him accessible, resonated with people. We are three weeks into the campaign and have 80 letters. A network has been formed full of West Virginia writers, teachers, families of UBB miners, and fellow WVU alum who have likewise left the state. The campaign has been a conduit, lowering the cost of speaking out. We hope the campaign will help in some way.

In the last paragraph of your piece, you write, "the people in West Virginia are waking up." I wanted to write to you Mr. Leamer and let you know that I have woken up. I want to help wake up others. Making One Year Count ( is about the everyday person speaking out about the injustice of Upper Big Branch, but it has the potential to be more than that. I am writing to ask you for your help, to spread the message of the campaign and to contribute a letter yourself. Honestly, this is a shot in the dark, but we could use any help we can get.

Thanks very much for your time,

Ann Bybee-Finley