The song, Are My Hands Clean from Sweet Honey and the Rock, tells the story of the making of a shirt from the picking of cotton to its purchase at Sears and all stops in between. It’s a song that helps you realize the human cost of where your clothes come from and asks, are your hands clean?
To a native of the heart of Appalachia like me, the song calls to mind how easy it is to forget when you flip your light switch, where your power comes from and the generally unknown and conveniently overlooked journey of coal.
Coal’s journey often begins in impoverished communities like Mingo County, West Virginia, where the chamber of commerce is made entirely of coal. Ironically, the sign in front reads, “Home of the Billion Dollar Coal Field”.
During the “boom years” in southern West Virginia several communities of educated and affluent black folks flourished. The boom eventually busted with the advent of Mountain Top Removal (MTR) or strip mining. In MTR mining the costly undertaking of messy work of digging underground is replaced by decapitating the mountains leaving landscapes that look more like the Moon than Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.
Upon extraction the coal is hauled away to be cleaned by chemicals. These coal cleaning chemicals, like the thousands of other industrial products are stored across America are in tanks. If storage tanks are left unregulated, they could present a future threat to the communities around them.
The Elk is the main water source for 300,000 people including the Governor as well as the majority of West Virginia’s black residents.
On January 9, 2014 in Charleston, West Virginia, a tank owned by Freedom Industries leaked a chemical called MCHM into the Elk River. The Elk is the main water source for 300,000 people including the Governor as well as the majority of West Virginia’s black residents. For several days we adapted and overcame the annoyance and dangers, like our forebears did for generations. Although the water ban has lifted many of us remain skeptical and fear the most fundamental resource for life.
This industrial “accident” in West Virginia can become ground zero for America’s renewable energy conversations, debates and solutions, especially as it relates to job opportunities, education and breaking poverty cycles.
This region has been plagued by a mono or duo-economy and an equally entrenched allegiance to this perilous economic state.
This region has been plagued by a mono or duo-economy and an equally entrenched allegiance to this perilous economic state. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in Appalachia and across America with a eye on renewable energy innovation. There is also opportunity for energy leadership diversity in these traditional industries.
My alma mater, West Virginia State University, is an HBCU neighboring a chemical plant that once produced one of the world’s deadliest chemicals – MIC, of Bhopal India fame. I often wonder if African Americans had been more involved with environmental activism would that plant have been built beside our institution? I wonder where are they now?
Our history is expressed in the coal industry tag line “COAL- It keeps the lights on!” Indeed it has, but the future belongs to diverse energy strategies that can wash our hands for more entrepreneurs, advocates and leaders whose hands are clean.