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Mountain Heroes: Donetta Blankenship

My name is Donetta .

I have four children who ask me,
Why are we destroying our mountains?

I know they need coal to make electricity. But at the same time, if they're doing all this with the sludge, going through the process of getting the coal ready for the electricity, and in the meantime killing people, we're not going to need the electricity, now are we?

Photo by Mark Schmerling

Donetta Blankenship: My Mountain Story

Nearly a decade ago, West Virginia native Donetta Blankenship moved with her family to the town of Rawl in southwest West Virginia near the Kentucky border. Before moving to Rawl, Donetta didn’t know much about mountaintop removal mining. That changed when she, her four kids, and her husband began to see first-hand the deadly problems of this destructive mining practice from her home, where the only source of water had been contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals from a nearby impoundment of coal slurry that was leaching. After nearly losing her life due to organ failure from drinking the water, Donetta knew she had to take a stand.

This is Donetta’s story:

When I was pregnant with my first child Josh, I would watch the news, and they would talk about these few organizations like Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy trying to stop mountaintop removal mining. I kind of wondered why they were trying to stop it because I just didn’t know anything about it. We had well water where we lived, but it was good water. There wasn’t a mine near us.

When we moved up here to Rawl in 2001 all my neighbors and I had well water. They were doing mountaintop removal mining back on what used to be a mountain behind where we live. There is still a big sludge pond up there, but they're not really doing much there anymore because they've already flattened out the mountain. The sludge comes from when they clean coal; they use rough chemicals and toxins which are poisoning to us, but they’re supposed to help the coal. It ran down into our wells, and we ended up using it.

Our water was an orange-ish color, and it smelled like rotten eggs. Our whole house smelled like rotten eggs because of the water. No matter how long we'd be gone, anytime you opened the door to come in, it smelled like rotten eggs. People who came over to visit complained of headaches.

We even had a filter on it, and it didn't help. It was still light orange. When we didn’t have the filter on it, it would come out rust-colored. I saved two jars of this water. When I first filled it up, one jar looked just like a jar of watered-down tomato juice. Well after six months, when I got it out, it had turned black. And when I tried to open it, it was sealed. It looks like coal sludge now.

But what really made me start getting involved was in April of 2005, when I ended up being up in the hospital myself and almost died. Even then I knew the water was bad, but I cooked with it, we drank it, of course we had to bathe in it. Anything we had to do with water, we had to use this well water. When I was put in the hospital, they told me my liver was failing. I never drank alcohol. I checked with my mother and my dad to see if it ran in the family. It was nothing like that. The only thing we could think was that the water did it.

After I got out of the hospital and got better, another year and a half went by and I ended up in the hospital again with the same thing. I’ve got kids. The first time my doctor told me my liver was failing, my daughter was in the room with me, and also my dad. My daughter had to hear the doctor say that I was dying. And at the point, it was killing me. I got so scared for my kid. It's hard for me to even talk about it. I wanted to be here for my kids to grow up and see what they could become.

I started taking medicines for my liver, and then in March of 2007, we finally were able to turn on city water here in our homes. Shortly after getting city water, I stopped having to take my liver medicines. That should say something about what was going on in my body because of the well water.

I feel more or less like I'm a nobody. But I want people to know that I am going to do all I can to try to help, to save people's lives, and help them so that they won't have to go through this with their water. I just don’t want to see even people I don’t know to go through what I've been through.

I know that my health and my home and my children are very important to me. And I know that other people feel the same way. We all need to stick together and try to get something done about mountaintop removal mining. I hope everybody will start doing what they can to take care of this.