Appalachia Energy Immersion: Student Reflections

This March, ten students and two staff members drove south to coal country, specifically Montgomery, West Virginia. Montgomery fills a crescent moon bend in the Kanawha River, 30 miles southeast of Charleston. Our host for the trip was Mike King, a founding member of the Morris Creek Watershed Association who’s been working tirelessly to sing life back into the town’s stream. This spring marked ten years of partnership between Mike and Dartmouth students, and the Sustainability Office and Irving Institute for Energy and Society’s second Energy Immersion trip to Appalachia.

Montgomery was our home base for the trip, a landscape we connected to through walks in the watershed, swishing around in the creek while joining a biologist from WVU Tech in a benthic study, and speaking with community members. We learned that Montgomery’s story is representative of many of the broader trends shaping West Virginia: shrinking populations, school consolidation, cycles of extraction and local impoverishment, a local economy adjusting away from coal, and a legacy of acid mine drainage and erased history.

In the following days we visited Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, the poorly remembered site of one of the country’s worst industrial disasters, and a mountaintop removal site reclaimed as a cattle ranch. We caught glimpses of the energy landscape: miles of green tubing stacked along the highway, waiting to form a pipeline, and coal floated in barges down the Kanawha River.

We met with an oil and gas company with ambitious plans for natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracking, and with Appalachian Power, the region’s largest utility, which maintains a carbon capture and sequestration system, and is phasing out their coal mines and integrating renewables, but with an awareness that long-term employment opportunities decline as the energy regime moves from coal to solar.

At the University of Charleston we engaged with a range of viewpoints—artists, activists, a lawyer, students—on the region’s social issues and national representation. And we explored the theme of economic revitalization, touring the New River Gorge and towns in Fayette County rebranding through tourism, as well as efforts by nonprofits to generate jobs through agrotourism, renewables, professional development and community engagement.

What emerged was a complex picture of a region in transition: a severance tax that helps fund schools but perpetuates cycles of extraction and degradation; a great pride for the state and love of the land but a sense of powerlessness to enact change; a quality author Catherine Moore describes as “historical amnesia” in relation to a long and largely unremembered lineage of environmental injustice, and a complicated history of land ownership that tracks from the erasure of native populations to the severance of surface and mineral rights. Every day of the trip challenged our expectations and ability to “dialogue across difference.”

During our nightly reflections, we posed questions such as: How do we build local sovereignty? What would reconciliation for West Virginia look like? Is there a balance between meeting energy needs and sustaining livable futures? Will the development of natural gas follow the same pattern as coal? The challenges facing West Virginia are intersectional, and--as we heard several times during the trip--so must be the solutions: not just economic, but social, political, ecological, and as Beach Vickers, Shakespeare-actor-turned-watershed-resource-specialist would argue, supported by a cultural and artistic backbone. We left West Virginia wondering about the form of a just and fair transition. As John Beaver, a Montgomery business owner, told us, whatever is coming, “make the jobs here. When they do flip the switch on us, remember West Virginia.”

There were parts of the trip that made us hopeful: the thoughtful and energetic work of the community leaders we met, effective examples of grassroots activism and organizing, the old tailing field we helped Mike aerate that will soon flower with lavender. Back on campus, we continue to think through the takeaways: how to incorporate into the nation’s dialogue the region that for so long, provided the country’s energy needs, and, inspired by the work of Mike and so many others, a desire to be good stewards for the places we live, and to take care of our watersheds.

View more photos of our trip here!

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