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EDITOR’S NOTE: Reporter Ken Ward Jr. resigned last week from the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette-Mail after a long and distinguished career covering the coal industry and its impact on the state. West Virginian Betty Dotson-Lewis shared her thoughts on Ward’s departure in the form of a letter to the editor to Ward’s former employer. Ward is a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. The video above was produced by MacArthur Foundation.
I read that award-winning reporter Ken Ward Jr. is leaving your paper. How can this happen? I am upset, hurt and mad that he will no longer be representing us, the everyday, working class people who live here in this state. How can you possibly let him go? What direction is this paper going in under this new leadership? I am very interested in knowing.
I am not interested in any more coverage of global news. I have enough of that already through TV and the internet. I depend on newspapers like the Charleston Gazette-Mail employing and retaining reporters like Ken Ward who are willing and intelligent enough to go behind the scenes and, with persistence, find the truth and report on the local level. I met Ken a couple of times at black-lung conferences and rural journalism conferences. I was impressed by his genuine concern and support for our most vulnerable residents.
Ken is in tune with the heartbeat of West Virginia people. We have learned to depend on him to report the facts on the most sensitive and important topics affecting us, such as black lung benefits (how coal miners struggle for years trying to get claims they are entitled to and do not because the system is rigged by coal operators, their doctors and lawyers).
Ken is able to see and understand that run-off from mountaintop removal coal mining sites has turned our safe water system into a toxic system killing our fish and causing skin diseases on those who have to use it. We have the pipeline controversy – which could or has disrupted some of the most beautiful scenery on the face of the earth. If he goes, how are we to know the truth behind so many of these stories?
I am just touching the tip of an iceberg of environmental issues facing West Virginians. At this very moment, I am thinking and worrying about the people living in Minden, West Virginia, and what could be the outcome if Ken Ward were to cover this story. One hundred or more of the 250 residents who live in Minden are currently diagnosed or have previously been diagnosed with cancer. I went over and took pictures and talked to some of the people living there – it is really sad. I know one resident told others she can name 35 people in the neighborhood, including her mom, who have died from cancer. Her mom died in 2007 from a combination of breast, ovarian and uterine cancer. It is not that easy for rural residents to just pick up and move.
The back story on Minden theorized by many citizens is that this widespread diagnosis of cancer stems from not only the toxic remnants of chemicals used during the coal mining and washing process but also from PCB oil leaking into Arbuckle Creek, which runs through the little community, contaminating the water supply. Shaffer Equipment Company, based in Minden from 1970-1984, produced electrical equipment for the coal industry including transformers containing PCB oil. After a federal ban of production in 1979, it is said the contaminated equipment was dumped down a long-abandoned mine shaft in Minden. Decades later the PCB oil is still leaking into Arbuckle Creek. A single white cross sits on a barren piece of ground with a flood light lighting it up at night.
I feel like some big-city newspaper like the Washington Post or New York Times will take Ken away from us. I am worried that regardless of his intelligence and hard working ethics – he will not be able to make the impact he has here in West Virginia. We need him here.
Betty Dotson-Lewis is from West Virginia and is the author of several books on Appalachian heritage and social issues.