Lessons of Justice for Students: Grandpa versus Big Coal
© Perry Binder 2011-2017
“This is not an environmental issue. This is about a little human being.” — Ed Wiley (Grandpa) speaking to West Virginia Governor (now Senator) Manchin
While the media insults and labels the youth of every generation like a W or X or Y or Z (oh you Slackers, Echoes, Netters, and Millennials), I instead see 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.
In 2009, I wrote:
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 offered: “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.”
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. Now, the world was watching after Marsh Fork.
Finally, a new school can be built, thanks to commitments of:
- $2.5 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation
- a gift from the Coal River Mountain Watch
- $2.6 million from the West Virginia School Building Authority
- $1.5 million from the Raleigh County Board of Education, and
- $1.5 million from Massey Energy (the mining company)
Source: Jeff Biggers, Goodbye Massey Coal Dust: Welcome to the Ed Wiley Elementary School!, The Huffington Post (June 30, 2010) (updated May 25, 2011).
This month, the Raleigh school board announced it had finalized the land purchase for the site of the new school. Until then, these students still face a potential 72-foot tidal wave of coal sludge should the impoundment break, per Mr. Biggers. 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, Netters, and Millennials.
Published in The Huffington Post with Permission of author