Bethany Aslinger: A rock in the ground should not decide a proud people's fate

Loader and coal on a truck at a surface mine near Chavies, Ky., Friday, December  19, 2008.
Loader and coal on a truck at a surface mine near Chavies, Ky., Friday, December 19, 2008. Herald-Leader

Harlan County is dying. I am reminded every time I drive down the road and my windshield is pelted by pieces of coal flying from the back of an uncovered truck. I am reminded with every layoff and every application rejected.

I am reminded when I see young people leaving and the elders angry with their decisions, despite it being their only option.

The future is imminent, yet no one talks about the taboo subject of the failing coal industry nor what it has done to our communities. Opinions about coal are met with pursed lips and crossed arms; you cannot stand on middle ground. You either love coal, or you hate it. You work it, or you don't understand it. You live it, or you can't have that empathy. You're with us or against us.

The industry did provide for me. Coal put food in my stomach, clothes on my back and presents under the tree at Christmas courtesy of my father who was willing to do the backbreaking work.

In the winter, I helped my grandmother haul the black rocks from a pile in the neighborhood to help warm her creaky, cozy home. I never knew if Mamaw had paid for the coal that was dumped nearby, but hey, it didn't matter, coal was booming and there was plenty to go around.

Despite having lived in the foothills of Appalachia and experienced the life of the coal industry, I feel myself being silenced when I try to speak up against it. We have built ourselves around coal and it's a no-brainer that we find our communities dying along with it. The industry has left its workers underappreciated, the waters chemically laced and small towns crippled by the ironfisted companies.

Although change can be daunting, it's possible. A community garden at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College is a great start. It provides freshly grown food for the college eatery, The Grill, and uses extra credit as an incentive for students to work in the garden. Greenhouses could also be added and community involvement encouraged.

Citizens and elected officials should discuss putting solar panels on our schools and prominent buildings to help move us toward a beneficial transition for everyone. Not only would the solar energy be cleaner, but we could locally train citizens to install the panels and provide maintenance, creating stable jobs within the county. The same could also be done with wind turbines on mountains.

It would take many discussions, much community support and companies willing to help us make our ideas reality, but with enthusiasm and positive thoughts for Harlan's future, we can pioneer our way for other coal communities in Kentucky.

It's a well-known fact that Appalachians are proud people, but our fate and our worth shouldn't be determined by a rock in the ground.