After 32 days and 380 miles of walking, Ed Wiley, a concerned grandfather of a Marsh Fork Elementary School student and grass roots activist, stopped in Shepherdstown Monday to speak with residents on his way to Washington where he hopes to meet with federal lawmakers.
Wiley is on a mission to ensure the safety of the children in Sundial, W.Va., where their elementary school sits next to a coal preparation plant and just 400 yards downstream from a dam holding back over two billion gallons of toxic sludge. The Mine Safety Health administration says the dam is leaking, Wiley said.
“It’s a very, very serious, very emotional issue for me,” Wiley said. “I feel what’s going on at Marsh Fork Elementary is a very bad situation....I don’t feel these kids should be sacrificed.”
The same man staged a sit-in demonstration on the steps of the capitol in Charleston a year ago to gain an audience with Gov. Joe Manchin and try and convince the state to build a new school away from the coal plant and sludge dam.
Dissatisfied with the government’s inaction Wiley decided this summer to take his message on the road.
He left Charleston on Aug. 2 to begin a 455-mile hike to Washington, D.C., where he hopes to meet with federal lawmakers, including Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., about the issue. He is scheduled to arrive on Sept. 12.
All along the way he has stopped in various communities to spread his message and help raise money for a new school.
“We need to stand up for our children. This isn’t a hundred years ago. We don’t have to be belittled no more. We don’t have to beaten down,” Wiley said. “Just because we live in the coal fields doesn’t mean we’re dumb hillbillies.”
Wiley is part of the Pennies of Promise grassroots effort, which is comprised of citizens of the Coal River Valley, who hope to raise money for a new school. The effort is currently being supported by several environmental groups.
Wiley’s granddaughter’s school is surrounded by a coal mining operation owned by Goals Coal, a Massey Energy subsidiary, and operating a coal processing plant and the dam, which holds back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic waste left over from coal production. The coal mining operation includes a coal silo train that loads 200 feet away from the school, a preparation plant that uses chemical scrubbers within 250 yards away and a coal silo that sits just 225 feet from the school. A permit for a second silo has also been approved. A picture shown by Wiley showed children playing on monkey bars in the shadow of a silo, which looms over the playground.
There is also a nearly 1,850-acre strip mining operation above the school.
“The coal dust blows all over the children’s playground,” Wiley said. “Kids come home black.”
An independent study took samples of dust from various classrooms and later analysis showed all seven samples showed coal dust contamination. Of the children at the school of over 200, Wiley said three have died from cancer and four teachers have also succumbed to the disease.
“They’re more worried about the silos than the children,” he said.
Wiley became involved after his granddaughter kept getting sick while attending Marsh Fork. He said he also noticed that every time he picked up her up at school, several children would always be absent. One day his granddaughter confronted him about the coal mine.
“She turned to me with tears just pouring down this little girl’s face and she said, ‘Gramps, these coal mines are making us kids sick,’ and that, then and there, was what woke me up,” Wiley said.
The biggest concern for Wiley is the sludge dam holding back the billions of gallons of toxic waste. The school itself stands directly in the path of the dam. Since 1991 the dam has been handed over 240 “significant” violations, Wiley said.
“If certain occurrences happen this dam will fail. They’re talking about the children getting it first,” Wiley said.
According to Pennies for Promise, that very event actually happened in Buffalo Creek, W.Va. on Feb. 26, 1972, when rain caused a toxic coal sludge dam to burst and collapse, killing 125 people and destroying over 1,000 homes. Most of those killed were women and children.
Ironically should such an incident happen again in Sundial, Wiley may have had a small part to play.
“I relieved the pressure on that dam,” he said. “I can I tell you I didn’t realize I was possibly setting up something that was going to kill my granddaughter one day. I think I was blinded by the (wages) that I never made before. I really don’t have an excuse for it but this here is what really woke me up to the whole issue.”
Wiley said he was determined to get the children a new school. But, opposing the coal industry is difficult, he said.The school board receives money from the coal company and whistleblowers are afraid to come forward.
“If you get anybody to speak out they will get fired. I had trouble getting an 80-year-old lady down there to speak out,” Wiley said. “She said, ‘well my grandson works for them and if they find out I’m speaking out he could lose his job and she’s telling the truth.’”
Frustrated, Wiley decided to take his fight to Charleston where he hoped Manchin, who grew up among coal miners, would take his side. Wiley said he figured if there was enough money to remodel the governor’s mansion, complete with flat screen televisions and poker tables, there surely was enough money to build a new school in Sundial.
Wiley said the governor expressed his concern for the children and promised an investigation regarding the health and safety of the children of Marsh Fork, but so far the state hasn’t pledged any money for a new school. Wiley said he believes Manchin wants to help the children but is being sidelined by politics and the influence of the coal industry.
“In the meantime our children are being sacrificed,” he said.
At the conclusion of his presentation, which included a slide show, Wiley was given a standing ovation — a reaction that nearly brought him to tears.
More information about Pennies of Promise is available by contacting the organization at (304)-854-1830 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tax-exempt donations can also be sent to Pennies of Promise, Pioneer Community Bank, 822 Robert C. Byrd Dr., Sophia, WVa., 25921-9538.
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