An Appalachian Overview

Posted on November 10, 2009 by

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By Tim Flahertyappalachian

Dr. Jill Kriesky, executive director of the Clifford M. Lewis, S.J. Appalachian Institute at the Wheeling Jesuit University spoke on the Appalachian region Sunday afternoon in the Library Lecture hall.

Students learned about volunteering opportunities for an alternative spring break program in West Virginia, associated with the Institute, serving the community and gathering awareness of the region and its residents.

Dr. Kriesky gave a survey of history, cultural values and economics of the region. She highlighted the region’s challenges with rural poverty, environmental conservation and residents’ health.

The history of the Appalachians is one that dates back to the Colonial period, although the region wasn’t defined until the 1960s. Residents can often trace their roots back to Scotch-Irish settlers who pioneered new territories apart from the Colonies. The region boasts eighty percent homeownership, representing the inheritance of land by a population very close to its past.

Elements of struggle and conflict have consistently been demonstrated by costly feuds between mining workers and mining company owners. Workers tried to unionize in the 1920s, and began the Battle of Blair Mountain, an armed conflict that caused federal troops to intervene to retain order. Local law enforcement and federal troops sided with the company owners, by pursuing the workers, allowing sentiments of anger and distrust towards government to build.

The conflict endures today as working class residents continue to battle large company owners in issues of land use and wealth management. Large companies extract resources from the region by means that have the lowest costs.

“Coal companies buy mineral rights from homeowners who own surface rights,” Dr. Kriesky notes. Mineral rights allow coal companies flexibility when extracting resources as coal and natural gas from land owned by those with surface rights.

Large coal companies own mineral rights and sites in the region, but are not headquartered there. “So when resources are extracted,” Kriesky aches, “the wealth is not staying here.”

The outsourcing of the wealth, lack of regulation and taxes can be traced to the unemployment rate of the region which is 150-322% of the national average. “Poverty is lessening,” Kriesky notes, “But lessening more in urban areas and less in rural.”

Rural areas are tainted by the waste discarded after coal is refined. A slurry is an amount of water that waste is released in, when refining coal. Last winter, a slurry spilt into a community and the Tennessee River, contaminating that area’s drinking water. Contaminated drinking water is so common that many regularly choose unhealthy drinks, such as Mountain Dew.

Some are optimistic of the Obama administration’s efforts to support legislation that would protect the region’s environment. A group called the Surface Rights Organization (SRO) is fighting for homeowner awareness of surface and mineral rights and protection of homeowners from coal companies who own mineral rights.

Working class residents continue to struggle against the large coal companies for their rights and environmental conservation. Politicians are beginning to listen to the cries for reform, such as senior West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

The Appalachian Institute welcomes all students to volunteer to serve this region and become aware of its residents and challenges. Students can still apply for the Spring Alternative break program.

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Posted in: Campus News