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Mountain Heroes: Dustin White

My name is Dustin .

200 years of my family history are lost.
Now I have to fight for my future.

Many don't realize the thing they cling to, coal, is the thing that is harming us. The coal industry's propaganda machine is very powerful, and people here are indoctrinated early in life.

Dustin White: My Mountain Story

Dustin White is a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Keeper of the Mountains Foundation. He spends his free time working in his home state of West Virginia and in Washington, D.C. to educate the public, elected officials, and members of Congress on the devastation mountaintop removal mining causes to the people of Appalachia. He is also working for stronger cemetery protection legislation in West Virginia.

This is Dustin's story:

My name is Dustin White and I am 29 years old. I grew up in James Creek Hollow in Boone County, West Virginia. There weren’t many children in my area, and my sister was 11 years older, so I grew up like an only child. I never had a lot of fancy toys and gadgets — none of the luxuries of the modern-day kid, but I never knew I went without.

The hillsides and all they had to offer were my playground. The rocks, the sticks, the wildlife — they were my best friends. I spent most of my childhood in the mountain stream that flowed in front of my home catching crawdads and salamanders, seeing what could be found, or just simply how far I could go. With my family, I went on trips farther up the mountains for picnics, to hunt molly moochies (morel mushrooms), and sometimes just to camp for a few nights.

I grew up at the foot of a mountain named for my mother’s side of my family, Cook Mountain, home of my ancestors. My family and I would visit the 200-year-old graves of those who were laid to rest there, including the founder of Cook Mountain, my eighth great grandfather, Floyd Cook. His son, my seventh great grandfather, William Chapman "Chap" Cook, was a Civil War soldier in the Union Army. While there were always artifacts of my ancestors’ old way of life to be discovered on our visits, our family cemetery never went unmaintained.

Like many in the region, I grew up pro-coal. My father had been a coal miner, and I had coal miners on both sides of my family since the inception of the industry. My father made me promise never to be a coal miner — he wanted better for me — but I remained a coal supporter for years.

In 2009, a mountaintop removal site on Cook Mountain owned by Patriot Coal began encroaching on the graves of my ancestors. My uncle found our cemetery access roads blocked by debris. When he inquired about the cemetery, a mine foreman responded, "What cemetery?" They were only hundreds of feet from bulldozing the graves of my ancestors. When I found out about the access problems, I told my family I would help with the cemetery issue but I would not go against coal.

Then my mother and I had the opportunity to take a flyover, thanks to Goldman Prize winner Maria Gunnoe and SouthWings. Flying over Boone County, I was absolutely stunned by what I saw. I looked down at cancerous sores on the land with all these parasitic machines eating away at the lush green forests I was accustomed to. And when we reached our destination over Cook Mountain, I saw the graves of my ancestors – in an island of trees in the middle of a vast barren, lifeless moonscape. It was no longer my family's mountain; it was an alien world that I couldn’t recognize.

One of the hardest things I have ever have had to do was watch my mother break into tears on that flight, as she saw a part of who we are, our family history, destroyed.

As soon as we got back on the ground I started doing research. I found out that people I grew up with were getting sick and even dying. It had to be the horrific water quality and the toxic, coal-dust-laced air. Entire communities, like Lindytown, just on the other side of Cook Mountain, were being erased. People were being forced from their homes because they were unfortunate enough to live between two mountaintop removal sites. The industry was calling that "friendly buy-outs." I learned these weren't isolated incidents in West Virginia, but something that was occurring throughout the coal mining regions of Central Appalachia. The more I learned, the angrier I got. I felt I had been lied to all my life by an industry that was hurting my people.

I barely left my home state for most of my life, and now I often find myself traveling across the nation to show people what is happening in Appalachia. I have been up and down the New England coast, to Colorado, and even California.

Along the way, I’ve encountered many negative stereotypes of the people of Appalachia. It’s hard to get people to realize we are not just ignorant hillbillies in the way of cheaper electric bills. We are American citizens who are suffering so others can turn on a light bulb. Even at home it is hard to get people to understand. Many don't realize the thing they cling to, coal, is the thing that is harming us. The coal industry's propaganda machine is very powerful, and people here are indoctrinated early in life. Others are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their job or having their lives threatened.

When I speak out, I like to think I carry with me the voices of the people of Appalachia’s past, present, and future who are victimized by this horrible extraction process. I do it because I feel that I owe my very existence to these mountains. My blood is in these mountains, and these mountains are in my soul. I did not choose this fight. The coal industry chose it for me. I won’t quit until all the mountains threatened are safe.

I hope that one day I will see a sustainable and economically diverse Appalachia where the people are healthy and happy. I hope I see a region that no longer needs to be sacrificed for dirty energy, a place that makes future generations proud. I want the Mountain State to be known as the Mountain State once again.