Over spring break 2023, 9 students and 2 staff members made the long drive down to West Virginia to explore the heart and history of our Nation’s energy systems. On our Appalachian Energy Immersion Trip, students learned from energy producers, policy makers, community advocates, environmental protection agencies, and local stakeholders to understand the ways that coal has shaped a region and our nation’s energy systems, and to look for a way forward for a more just, equitable, and sustainable energy future. Here, Alex Campbell, ‘26, recounts some highlights from the trip in his own words.
Photo credits: Chris Johnson, Dartmouth Communications
Appalachia Energy Immersion Trip - A Recap written by Alex Campbell, ‘26
What happens when Dartmouth terms end? Not all students make the trek home. Some adventurous groups and individuals choose to embark on thrilling journeys in the break between terms.
And over spring break, I was one of them.
(I am now going to drop the epic-adventure-narration I was initially going for… how does Gandalf do it?)
Over spring break, I went on an Appalachia Energy Immersion Trip sponsored by the Dartmouth Sustainability Office and Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society. A group of nine students – all Dartmouth undergraduates from every year (freshman through senior, ‘26-’23), and a variety of majors – and three staff leaders spent ten days in Appalachia (West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, then two days at the end in Washington, D.C.) doing a deep dive into the history of the coal industry and its impacts on the environment, politics, economy, people, and culture of the region. We met with different stakeholders in the region and were able to hear a multitude of perspectives.
Before the trip, our group met once a week every Tuesday evening of winter term to eat yummy food, get to know each other, and learn as much background information about the coal industry in the Appalachian region as we could. These meetings were informal but informative, and prepared us with a solid knowledge base for our trip.
Every night of the trip we had debrief sessions, where we would unpack the complexities presented by our visits. These sessions were led by our staff and student leaders who would introduce a series of guiding questions to structure our conversations. We’d explore our thoughts and impressions, identify recurring themes from our trip, and ask how our perspectives may have shifted— and just talk through anything else that might come up. It was a great routine that helped us all to process and think deeper about what we’d learned that day.
Below are some highlights from the trip!
Morris Creek Watershed
We spent a few days in Montgomery, WV with a man named Mike King as our guide! It was a super fun couple of days involving creek stomping & sampling macroinvertebrates from rivers with acid mine drainage, learning about the area’s energy infrastructure, trying our hand at a lineman’s school lesson, and attending a cookout and talking to people from the town about their lives and perspectives on the coal industry (which had left the town a few decades ago and taken most of the jobs with it) as well as what they believed the future will look like for West Virginia.
Fracking Site & Coal Mine
Two of the most impactful days of our trip were definitely those spent visiting the fracking site and the mountaintop removal coal mine. Experiencing these places in real life and getting to ask questions of those who owned and operated on the site was a surreal experience. Seeing these worksites and watching these extraction processes play out in real time— it was an incredible opportunity to put visuals to concepts and really internalize the scope and impacts of these projects that we had read about.
Mine Wars Museum & Appalachian Citizens Law Center
My favorite day involved visiting the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum and learning about the early 20th century conflicts between laborers and the coal companies. The miners were fighting for better pay, safer working conditions, and the right to unionize – and every step of the way, the companies ignored their pleas and murdered their leaders. It was a harrowing history to learn, but an important one.
That same day we also visited the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, which is a nonprofit law firm that represents coal miners, their families, and other individuals affected by extractive resource industries. They also work with grassroots organizations and help advocate for policies that will hold the coal industry accountable for its destruction of land and the impacts it has on both the environment and people in the region. Hearing about the work they were doing was a bright spot on our trip – a reminder that there are good people looking out for those who are affected by these industries’ irresponsibility. At the same time, it was a reality check — a reminder that change is not happening as fast as it needs to, and it is often a thankless job for those who are pushing for it.
Hear more from our students who went on the trip!: