Country Roads, Take Me Home

A Student Recounts Her West Virginia Immersion Trip

By Jehieli Luevanos, Office of Development Communications Posted Mon, 06/03/2019 - 13:56

As we ran down what was once a majestic mountaintop the wind pushed us back, warning us. It was clear, Mother Nature was angry.  

It was almost as if she was warning us away from the torture the mountain had endured. The land had been desecrated for its coal by mountaintop removal mining. With tears in our eyes, we ran against the wind to the edge of the uneven plain.

To my right, I saw mountains that had been defiled for their coal, no longer tall and stately, but rather sad little heaps. To my left, I saw glorious mountains with vibrant ecosystems. Would they soon see the same treatment as their neighbors? This was West Virginia.

Coal Mining and Carbon Emissions

Over spring break in 2019, I joined 11 other USF students on an Arrupe Immersion trip to West Virginia to learn about coal mining and carbon emissions. Simply put, it was life-changing.

We were able to see first-hand the fracking sites, coal mines, and contaminated waterways. We were able to speak to workers who enter fracking sites everyday knowing the risks to their lives. I will forever think of West Virginia every time I turn the lights on because coal-fired electricity continues to be a  driving force behind the U.S. coal industry.  

USF  student carrying a sign that says "the oceans are rising and so are we."Our Arrupe Immersion trip to West Virginia put my peers and me face to face with environmental destruction most of us had never even heard of. For us, none of this would have been possible without the scholarships we each received that allowed us to afford a transformational trip.

Raising scholarship funds for immersion trips is a priority at USF, and 80 percent of students who go on USF’s immersion trips receive some type of financial aid.

Blowing up Mountaintops  

Mountaintop removal mining begins by ripping trees from the ground and clearing brush. The trees and brush are then set ablaze while workers dig deep holes in the mountain. Explosives are poured into these holes and mountaintops are literally blown apart in order to reach coal.

The excess rock and dirt is then scooped up by machines called draglines and pushed off the edge of the mountain directly into nearby streams and valleys, sometimes polluting people’s drinking water. Mountaintop removal mining isn’t as effective as traditional coal mining involving a group of miners, but it is cheaper and faster.

As we walked around the mining areas, what surprised me the most was that coal was everywhere on the ground. I picked up a large piece of coal, and to my surprise, it was soft and easily crumbled in my hand. After all the destruction, they hadn’t even bothered to take all of the coal.

Coal has been mined since 1810. Coal used to be the sole method for heating and electrifying our homes and businesses, but now energy production has shifted towards the natural gas industry and renewable energy sources. Still, coal mining continues.

Changing the World from this Mountaintop

The majority of the USF students on the trip were environmental studies majors, and we all shared a love for preserving the Earth. As a politics and environmental studies major, I was able to witness some of the environmental degradation I have learned about in class.

On the trip, USF’s motto kept ringing in my ears — Change the World From Here. That was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to change the world from the remains of that mountain.

I want to ensure my children and future generations are able to enjoy the same hiking trails, clean water, and air I grew up with. As I stood with tears in my eyes overlooking the mountains that would soon be blown up for their coal, it reinforced my desire to become an environmental lawyer, so that I can try and save what is left of the Earth.

Find out more about supporting USF’s Arrupe Immersion Program