MARGOT WHEATLEY, Special to The Denisonian—A rugged mountain landscape ravaged by coal mining. A region defined by the opioid crisis. The Appalachian Mountains extend from the southern tip of New York to northern Alabama and Georgia.
West Virginia, the only state residing completely in Appalachia, has the worst ranked economy and infrastructure of any state in the U.S. according to the U.S. News and World Report in 2019. This low economic ranking has much to do with the ghost of mining corporations that bought the mineral rights to the majority of West Virginia’s land over a hundred years ago.
Hypothetically, someone could own land that has been passed down by their family for generations, but the coal companies could own the mineral rights, and therefore if they have reason to believe there is coal underground, they could mine on that land and continue to tear up the landscape. It may sound like a nightmare to those not from Appalachia, but it is the reality for many families that live in such a region with a sinking economy dominated by coal.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2018, health care providers in West Virginia wrote 69.3 opioid prescriptions for every 100 citizens, which is in the top 10 of most prescriptions in the United States. This is the lowest level of prescribed opioids in West Virginia since 2006.
The opioid crisis is so prevalent in rural mining communities because of the physical risks that come from mining. Workers get injured in mines every day, and every day, they are prescribed more and more pain medication by way of opioids. The mines are unsafe. People are forced to work in horrid conditions because it is their only choice. They have no other option but coal in the small mining towns of West Virginia. The landscape has been torn apart; the people are addicted to opioids.
The world heavily benefited from coal mining, but states like West Virginia whose entire economy depends on coal did not benefit at all. The rich who own the mineral rights only get richer, and those who lose their mining jobs due to layoffs or injury only get poorer.
We cannot give up on West Virginia. With the New River, the Ohio River and many others, the state could be a pioneer in sustainable energy. Hydropower, which is significantly better for the environment and is a renewable resource, could potentially power the whole state, as well as some surrounding states.
West Virginia has so much potential, but the world has given up on it and condemned it to being known as “hick country.” This title is not only false, but also perpetuates the harmful stereotype that West Virginia is filled with country bumpkins who don’t know any better than to mine, and are not capable of anything else.
The West Virginia that outsiders see is not the one I see. I see West Virginia as nothing less than the beautifully resilient mountain mama it truly is. I see potential for growth and opportunity. I see West Virginia, in the next 50 years, pioneering renewable energy. As of 2018, only 6.7 percent of the state’s energy usage was renewable, compared to a national average of 10 percent. The world may have given up on West Virginia, but I have not, and I will not.
“Where Does West Virginia Place in the U.S. News Best States Rankings?” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 2019, www.usnews.com/news/best-states/west-virginia.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “West Virginia: Opioid-Involved Deaths and Related Harms.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 8 June 2020, www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids/opioid-summaries-by-state/west-virginia-opioid-involved-deaths-related-harms.