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Mountain Heroes: Chuck Nelson

My Mountain Story: Chuck Nelson

Chuck Nelson was born and raised in Sylvester, WV, along the Coal River. For nearly 30 years he worked as an underground coal miner, and is member of the United Mine Workers of America. When mountaintop removal coal mining came to Sylvester, Chuck watched his wife develop severe asthma, saw neighbors fall ill, and looked on as an unlined earthen dam was filled with 9 billion gallons of coal waste – or sludge – two miles upstream from his town. Today he serves as chairman of the board for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, vice president of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, is on the steering committee for the Alliance for Appalachia, and also a member of the Sludge Safety Project. He tours the country with the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation educating others on the harms of mountaintop removal mining.

This is Chuck's story:

My name is Chuck Nelson. Coal mining is in my family. I’m a fourth generation coal miner, and I worked in underground mines for 30 years. I always knew I’d be a coal miner, and I liked working in the coal mines. I’d take new cuts out, and suddenly I was in places where no human being had ever been before. The guys I worked with – we were just like family. Everybody had to look after everybody else. You had to do your job to ensure somebody else’s safety. We all knew that.

I didn’t even know about mountaintop removal coal mining until I started commuting for a new underground mining job in the early ’90s. I had to get across the mountain to get to work, and I came across a sign every day that said "Mountaintop Mining Site." I couldn’t see the mining site itself, just the sign. I didn’t pay much attention to it.

Then in the late ’90s, mountaintop removal mining really started taking off around here. That’s when I saw it with my own eyes. Suddenly it seemed, I could go to any of my familiar lookouts and favorite spots and see them taking off the mountaintops. I knew they were doing a lot of strip mining, but I didn’t know it was on the scale that it was – to the extent of taking off entire mountaintops.

The first feeling when you see something like this is anger. It makes you angry, seeing that they are allowed to do something like that to the place you lived. It really made me mad to see a mountain that was always there, my whole life long, being just blown away.

And then I started seeing how our community was falling apart. Mountaintop removal mining was poisoning my people’s water and air, and making their homes uninhabitable. You see people with water that looks black coming out of their spigots. Your best friend dies with brain tumors at 29 years old.

Being a coal miner, I depended on coal to raise the family. But I knew when I went into the underground mine, I was sacrificing my own health. It was my choice, as an underground coal miner. But mountaintop removal mining is different, because it affects whole communities — people who don’t get a choice in the matter.

I started going all the way over the mountain to attend these meetings headed up by local organizer Maria Gunnoe of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. There were communities over there, just like there were here, going through rough times. But our numbers were small. How were we going to stop it? It seemed like everything — the world — was against us.

We were frustrated to see that our state and county regulators and government officials knew about what was going on — that people were getting sick, and they were aware of the studies about the health impacts – and still they let it go on.

I still can’t understand how our elected officials can just turn their heads from this. It seems like they are so dead-set on letting these companies do what they want to, while destroying our communities. But when I think about where we were then versus where we are today, I am inspired. Our movement is so much larger now, and there are people out there who really care about what’s happening in Appalachia. Today, I see people speaking out against it from every corner of this country. 

Over the last few years, we have found out a lot more about the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining that we didn’t know when we started fighting it, and it’s sounding worse and worse. Funny thing about information: It can either get us down, or make our thirst for justice even stronger. I feel it is making our cause even stronger.

In this fight, we face new challenges every day, and setbacks all the time. But I keep telling myself: If you get knocked down, just get back up. That’s what courage is. You have got to keep getting back up.

Every day that I wake up, I know that I have to do something positive for this fight. And seeing that so many others from around the country are in it with me gives me a feeling of hope, and strength to keep fighting for what I believe.