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Hazard Figures: Heritage, Memorial, and Wasting in Appalachia

Maria McVarish

Abstract

At approximately 3:00 p.m. on 5 April 2010 a cloud of methane gas exploded in a mine near Montcoal, West Virginia. Twenty-five miners died instantly, and for the next five days national and international news associations tracked efforts to rescue four miners believed to have sought refuge in a nearby air pocket. It was a familiar story… heard last year in China, five years ago in Kentucky. Judging from reports of survivors and family members the miners had understood that where they live injury, asphyxiation, and death are the conditions of employment. In this article, I explore concepts of value and productivity in close thematic relationship with ideas of ‘wasting’: literal and metaphoric, human and environmental. Drawing from photographs and news stories, I argue that for Appalachian mining communities the wish for “contained memory” emerges within a context of uncontained toxicity and danger. A discussion of issues connecting cultural heritage sites in Appalachia with the necessity for mourning and memorial provides the backdrop for my scrutiny of these terms. Efforts to contain cultural memory in Appalachia are complicated by an identity of environmental and cultural degradation—the direct legacy of the coal industry and its decline. Indeed, this wasted identity persists in two of the region’s “growth industries”: filling un-reclaimed mine sites with garbage imported from New York and building and managing federal prison facilities. The wasting of the mine region’s society and landscape is thus reified in its use as a receptacle for out-of-state “refuse”.