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Tuesday, September 06, 2022


by Pauletta Hansel

LOST CREEK, KY. — Families along Upper River Caney and Lower River Caney roads recall how the floodwaters that rushed through their narrow hollow turned from a muddy brown to a charcoal gray late last month. Within minutes of the color change, the water rose so high that it picked up homes, cars, sheds, boulders, trees, staircases, swingsets and swimming pools. The debris turned into dangerous projectiles as the water rushed down through the community. Many residents fled into the mountainside and waited out the storm as the ashy water and mud cascaded down the hills that surrounded them. One person from the community is still missing, and another was killed. Officials expect Breathitt County to be without water utilities until December…. Now 59 people who live in this narrow hollow hope to hold Blackhawk Mining and its subsidiary Pine Branch Mining, which together operate a nearby coal mine, accountable…. The plaintiffs allege that the failure of the companies’ silt ponds, aggravated by the mining operation’s damage to the land, led to the widespread destruction of their community and the contamination of their drinking water. Photo: Tatyn Skidmore carries Brelyn Hays on his shoulders outside their home in the Upper River Caney community of Lost Creek, KY., on August 18. Credit: Michael Swensen). NBC News, August 23, 2022.

“What a Friend we have in Jesus, / All our sins and griefs to bear!” Traditional hymn.
“And he shall break down the house, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and he shall carry them out of the city to an unclean place.” Leviticus 14:45
And when the unclean place
is the silt pond
up by the strip mine and the grey
of its waters broke free
from its rickety dam
and carried away your house built
wise as you could, what else but a lawsuit 
to carry the blame
back up the shorn mountain
where it belongs?
“What a friend we have in…”
Jesus wept
and I’m willing to wager he would again
at Blackhawk Coal and their claims
of “our people” and “deeply impacted,”
their sympathies and their support.
And the mud had not dried
when they posted their notice
“Intent To Blast”
over where the door stoop had been
before the flood.
I know there was rain,
too much, too fast,
another one of those 1000-year floods,
but what kind of flood
carries its little ashy silt pond fishes
down from what’s left of the mountain,
not up from the creek?
“Within minutes of the color change, the water rose so high
that it picked up homes, cars, sheds, boulders, trees,
staircases, swing sets and swimming pools.”
So, yes, I’m feeling biblical,
Old and New,
calling on Jesus
to back up his people,
once clothed and fed by coal.
The ones who lost everything
there on Lost Creek, along River Caney.
The ones that are fixing to lose
every friend they thought they had.
“And the Philistine said to David, Come to me,
and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air,
and to the beasts of the field.” 1 Samuel 17:44
“No Friends of Coal”
reads the headline about the lawsuit
in the local weekly paper
underneath the photo of what used to be
that young man’s house,
now torn down to its timbers,
its moldy plaster spread out on the stony ground,
the raptors circling just beyond the frame.
That young man’s name is not David.
I wish he were David, delivered
“out of the paw of the lion,
and out of the paw of the bear,”
and “out of the hand of this Philistine.”
“What a friend we have in…”
Brother, I am here to tell you,
no matter the money they used to pay,
you don’t have a friend in coal.

Poet Pauletta Hansel writes: Driving back through my southeastern Kentucky hometown from doing some flood relief work I picked up the weekly paper with the headline, “No Friends of Coal: River Caney residents file lawsuit.” After letting out a cheer, I started thinking about what a headline like that meant for those 59 plaintiffs in eastern Kentucky where coal is second only to Jesus. My Sunday School lessons started coming back to me, including the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  I drew on national news for many of the details in this poem.