The Coal Mine Next Door

By Peter Slavin

Sundial, W. Va.
For Ed Wiley, the alarm sounded two years ago on the third straight day that he had to pick up his 9-year-old granddaughter, Kayla, from Marsh Fork Elementary School because she was sick. She was nauseated, had a bluish pallor, and was crying, perhaps from days of bad headaches. As they drove past the Sundial coal mine next to the school, he recalls, Kyla looked at him with tears running down her cheeks and said, “Grandpa, these coal mines are making us kids sick.”

Wiley had noticed each day that 15 to 20 other children of the 230 or so enrolled had also been signed out early. He called a television station and was interviewed on the news that night. Afterwards, parents started telling him about their sick children. He complained to the Raleigh County superintendent and the state health department, and eventually he and three other residents spoke at a school board meeting about the danger the coal mine’s proximity posed to the students. The citizens felt they got nowhere.

“They said it wasn’t their responsibility,” Wiley says of the board members. “It was the coal mine’s responsibility. It wasn’t their problem.”

Raleigh County Schools officials defend the school’s safety (see sidebar) at a time when increased scrutiny is being focused on West Virgnina’s largest industry. In January alone, 16 miners died in accidents while on the job, prompting state and federal officials to call for tougher safety measures against coal companies.

Today, Wiley, parents, and other critics say the coal dust and toxic chemicals from the giant Sundial mine are fouling the air at Marsh Fork Elementary, which stands barely a stone’s throw away across a narrow river. They point to the 165-foot high coal silo, towering just behind the school. Coal dust is kicked up when thousands of tons of coal drop from a conveyor belt into the silo and then are loaded noisily onto trains, as many as 90 cars at a time. Black soot several inches thick has been seen on the school playground and in the building’s ventilation system. Residents don’t only fear that children are breathing in coal dust. Some 300 yards from the school ground stands Sundial’s preparation plant, where the coal is scrubbed with chemicals to remove impurities before shipment, and the nearby ponds that catch chemical spills all contain a witches’ brew of potent substances. 

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