Country Roads

by Patricia Cline-Thomas

Country Roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads

Before two weeks ago, whenever I thought of West Virginia, my memories would take me back to John Denver’s song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. It was one of the many songs my parents, particularly my father, used to play around the house when I was growing up in Washington, D.C.  Music was a staple in our home and if you’d ever stopped by, you would most likely be greeted by the sounds of Golden Oldies, Sixty’s Pop, or Country ballads. As a high school math teacher for many years, my father was always interested in the Arts and Sciences; so it was only natural for me to take up an interest in these areas as well. If he were alive today, he would be very proud of how I’m pursuing my Master’s degree in Earth Sciences at North Carolina Central University.  He would also be proud that I was accepted this summer as a student intern with Duke’s Superfund Research Center.

During this internship, I’ve had the opportunity to visit mountains in West Virginia, similar to the ones John Denver sang about in his songs. It was a very stimulating and thrilling experience and the scenery was breathtaking.  The mountains of Southern West Virginia are of particular interest because of its heavy mining activity. Coal mining is a concern because of how mining processes such as coal extractions and sludge injections into the ground, destroys land cover and potentially pollutes aquifers and the air.  Mining has been the subject of multiple studies as it relates to its impact on human health.  Dr. Michael Hendryx, an associate professor at West Virginia University, suggests in his most recent research publication that there is an association between coal mining and the number of birth defects in children born in coal mining areas. The research we’re doing will give us some insight of how underground and surface coal mining and also injection sites affect the well water residents of this area use for consumption.

In order to access these wells, we had to journey through narrow and winding roads up the mountain several feet up. As we began to ascend in altitude, my ears actually began popping from the pressure and at one point our vehicle got stuck in mud. As we approached our destination, I didn’t know what to expect.  As it turns out, the residents we visited were very friendly and accommodating!  Once we arrived, we were able to conduct field work, which included water sampling from the drinking wells of private residences.  The samples that we’re gathering this summer will be screened for minerals which serve as contaminants in drinking water. It really feels great good to be a part of a project that will benefit the well being of others.  I look forward to my next visit to West Virginia in a few weeks.