ON AUG. 11, A LEAK of toxic chemicals at Union Carbide's Institute, W.Va., plant sent 135 people to the hospital. In response to that leak, local Sheriff Danny Jones said, "God certainly hasn't been good to this valley this week." Jones' remark continues a recent Appalachian tradition of shifting the blame for corporate disasters onto the shoulders of the Almighty. In 1972, a neglected Pittston Co. dam on Buffalo Creek in West Virginia collapsed, destroying a community and killing 125 people. A Pittston spokesman called the Buffalo Creek flood "an act of God."

When most Americans think of the coal-mining region of cental Appalachia, they think of poverty. To some, Appalachia is backward in a quaint and rather puzzling way; to others it is a pocket of ignorance that constitutes a national disgrace either to be ignored or chided for its perversity.

Underlying these attitudes is an assumption that something must be wrong with mountain people. After all, Indians are poor because they have been kicked across an entire continent, and black poverty can be explained by prejudice and discrimination.

What excuse do hillbillies have? Even during the 1960s, when concern for Appalachia was briefly "in," few people tried to learn the underlying reasons for the problems of the mountains. It was preferable to blame the victims -- poor, perhaps stupid, certainly woefully undereducated, somehow lacking the qualities that have made America the most powerful nation in the world.

I have spent almost my entire life in West Virginia. I have been educated in West Virginia schools, including college. But just living in West Virginia has given me a different kind of education. And I have come to understand that West Virginia -- the West Virginia that I grew up and live in -- may be physically part of the United States, but that in many ways it has more in common with the Third World than it does with the other 49 states. When I was 7 years old, the coal company painted our house the color of an overripe egg yolk.

"But what if we don't like the color?" I asked my mother.

"We don't have any choice," she answered.

Indeed, we had no choice, nor did anyone else in our West Virginia coal camp. Each little four-room box of a house received its dole of bright yellow paint. In the end, it didn't matter. After a few weeks a layer of coal dust toned down the color considerably. And four years later, every family but one left in search of work and the coal company tore down the houses behind us.

Growing up during the War on Poverty, I was conscious of a deep sense of shame. I was the daughter of a failed and graceless people, and the best I could hope for was to distance myself from them. I turned up my nose at hillbilly music, made fun of my grandparents' outhouse and prepared myself for college and a place in the American mainstream.

I attended college during the early 1970s and studied history. I watched with fascination as opponents of the Vietnam War railed against U.S. imperialism. I followed the overthrow of the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, read about the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War and the Philippines and U.S. intervention in Central America.

It all seemed strangely familiar. I recalled the coal camp house that had not belonged to us but to the Nassau Coal Company, bought out by Page, bought out by Pocahontas Fuel, bought out by Consol, surface acreage held in fief to Pocahontas Land Company, which was owned in turn by N & W Railroad. I remembered Uncle Brigham, our next-door neighbor, who drank to keep down the pain of a back injury from the mine. And Andy Wyatt, called to work only one day a week and paid accordingly, who was crushed to death on a mine conveyor belt. And the bent old men who spat and coughed and whistled when they breathed. And the children in my school with their teeth rotted black in their gums.

I hungered to know the history of my people. Little information was available, but I read everything I could. Later I worked on a project that researched land ownership patterns in central Appalachia. I came to understand that it serves the national purpose to view mountain people as members of a quaint and antiquated tribe, mildly entertaining but obsolete and slated for extinction. And I learned that before U.S. corporations refined their act in Chile and the Philippines and Central America, they practiced on us hillbillies.

During the 1880s, agents representing a variety of American and British industrial interests descended upon southern West Virginia. A decade later, they moved into eastern Kentucky. In the space of a few years most of the acreage in the region passed into their hands and the home of independent farmers with strong ties to place and kin had become a land of the dispossessed.

In many coal mining counties today, more than 80 percent of the surface land and almost all of the mineral rights are owned by absentee corporations. Most of this property was lost 100 years ago, in what was the most massive theft of land since the expulsion of the Indians. The companies used a variety of methods. Some claimed to hold patents dating back to the Revolutionary War, even though mountain farmers held titles at their county courthouses. In some places, courthouses burned down and titles changed hands overnight, or cooperative local politicians oversaw the transfer. Physical intimidation, including murder, was not unknown.

But in most cases, companies simply purchased mineral rights. Few mountain people had any interest in massive mineral development, or a clear understanding of the destructive nature of coal mining. Or they signed away the minerals to avoid an expensive legal battle against a company that threatened to take the entire farm. My own family sold the mineral rights to a large tract of land in Pike County, Ky., after being reassured by a cousin just returned from studying law in the Bluegrass. It had always been assumed that kin could be trusted.

In return for a few dollars an acre, family after family signed away billions of dollars in coal and natural gas reserves. They did so with the assurance they would be allowed to stay on the land. They were lied to. Once the companies began developing their new properties, the old residents were evicted, even where they still held clear title. The courts ruled that mineral ownership took precedence over surface ownership. Appalachia could be added to the list of places being exploited by the industrial West. The new landowners justified their actions in ways familiar to any student of imperialism. Alexander Arthur, who "developed" the area of Kentucky near the Cumberland Gap, was compared upon his death to Cecil Rhodes, the so-called father of Rhodesia. Arthur, according to his secretary, was "the instrument that opened to man another of the waste places of the world."

Coincidentally with the land-grabbers came missionaries to open settlement schools and civilize the natives and writers eager to paint a lurid picture of life in the mountains for urban readers. They praised mountain people for preserving the ancient ballads of the British Isles but condemned as vulgar more indigenous aspects of mountain culture such as fiddle music and moonshining.

The process of cultural imperialism was complete by the time British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, "The Appalachian 'mountain people' today are no better than barbarians. They have relapsed into illiteracy and witchcraft . . . . They are the American counterparts of the latter- day white barbarians of the Old World -- Riffs, Albanians, Kurds, Pathans and hairy Ainus . . . ."

I have come to see that Toynbee's assessment, once a cause for pain and anger, is an unwitting compliment. Hillbillies are a colonial people, and colonial peoples everywhere have been belittled by those who have taken advantage of them. The Kurds and Pathans make fine company, and the hairy Ainus are no doubt more admirable than Toynbee and those he represents. Some people will dispute the notion that Appalachia is a colony. Appalachia is part of the United States, they argue, and a place cannot be a colony of itself. Besides, West Virginians enjoy a higher standard of living than people in Third World countries. But West Virginia ranks 46th in the United States in per- capita income, ahead only of Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas and Mississippi. In parts of the state, basic living conditions are shockingly bad.

I recently toured Mingo County with a delegation of trade union leaders from India who were astonished to find such poor housing in a Western country. And if powerlessness is a measure of exploitation, the people of West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia are as desperate as the people of Haiti or Afghanistan.

It is true that when they are working, coal miners are paid well, although not well enough, many would argue, to compensate them for the injuries or diseases they expose themselves to. The mining companies may pay taxes to county and state governments, but beyond that, the history of West Virginia shows little in the way of community-mindedness by the big corporations that take so much from my state and leave so little behind other than a ravaged environment. The president of A. T. Massey Coal Co., a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, in announcing plans recently to open a mining complex in China, said, "Multinational corporations do not have a great deal of national loyalty and even less loyalty to southern West Virginia."

What problems do we face today in colonial Appalachia? Here are a few examples:

*In Mingo County, W. Va., rocks from coal company blasting knocked holes in houses and shook trailers off their foundations. A child playing outside was struck in the arm. A company spokesman, quoted in a local newspaper, said people living in coal mining areas should be prepared to live with the risks and conditions associated with such places. This sort of thing happens often enough in West Virginia to be considered an annual event.

*In 1984, 124 American coal miners were killed. Despite federal and state regulations, coal mining continues to be one of the most dangerous occupations in the country.

*A.T. Massey recently paid $29.8 million for 7,200 acres of land in Webster County, which has the lowest per capita income in the state of West Virginia. The county assessed the land at $14.9 million, which would bring $200,000 each year in tax revenue for an impoverished county school system. Massey has claimed the assessment is too high and refused to pay its taxes. Although the law appears to be on the county's side, the county judge hearing the case -- according to the Charleston Gazette -- has told county officials he is likely to uphold the company.

*In 1980, an aquaintance of mine taught chemistry in a McDowell County high school. The chemicals in his lab were 20 years old, much of the equipment was broken and he had to buy chalk for the blackboard out of his own pocket. This year the school is being closed because of a lack of funds.

The county school system suffers from a small property tax base. A subsidiary of the Norfolk and Southern Railroad owns one-third of the surface land in the county and one- third of the minerals. Most of the rest of the county is divided up among four other companies, including Georgia-Pacific and Consolidation Coal. The property tax paid on their surface land would buy only a few school buses.

*In the same county, unemployment in recent years has run around 40 percent. Poor schools and roads, brought about by the small property tax base, make it almost impossible to attract new industry. Even if new businesses could be attracted, they would find no place to locate. The absentee owners will not let go of the land.

*On Cabin Creek, residents are denied access to family cemeteries up remote hollows by companies that own the land. Many hollows across the coal fields are blocked by fences and gates denying access to the land and posted with "No Trespassing" signs.

*Oversight of strip mine regulations has been taken away from the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees many different aspects of conservation, and placed with a newly-created Department of Energy. The head of the Department of Energy is a coal operator.

*In many coal field communities, the water is undrinkable. Clothes are washed in rain water, for the tap water stains clothes and damages washing machines. People haul drinking water from miles away in plastic jugs. In one county it is estimated that 40 percent of the homes do not have water. Most communities are still without sewage or garbage systems as well.

*In the Kanawha Valley, residents live daily with foul air and the threat of chemical leaks. According to state health department studies, lung cancer rates in neighborhoods near the Union Carbide chemical plants were 21 percent higher than the national average for the years 1972-77, the most current data available. Despite the recent Union Carbide spill at Institute and another only days later in South Charleston, criticism of the chemical companies raises fears that jobs will be lost, and government officials show little interest in cracking down on safety.

Appalachia is part of an international network of exploitation. Exxon is in Appalachia and Colombia. Royal Dutch Shell is in Appalachia and South Africa. Conoco is in Appalachia and El Salvador. Occidental Petroleum is in Appalachia and Bolivia. Union Carbide is in Appalachia and India.

But it should not be assumed, as it so often is, that Appalachia is a land of defeat and hopelessness. From South Africa to the Philippines to Central America, the Third World is rousing itself. And Appalachia is America's very own home-grown Third World. Mountain people are more clear-eyed than most Americans I have encountered when it comes to recognizing exploitation. Grassroots protest movements are growing in eastern Kentucky, and miners in West Virginia are making connections between their own lot and the plight of blacks in South Africa.

In 1921, more than 10,000 West Virginia miners took up arms to overthrow the governments of Mingo and Logan Counties and take over the coal mines. They were stopped by the arrival of a U.S. Army division which announced that it had come equipped with airplanes, bombs and poison gas. It is possible that without the 50 years of government programs that have kept the props under a shaky structure, armed guerrilla movements would still be as active in the mountains of West Virginia as they are in El Salvador.

It would be dangerous for Americans to think that the problems of Appalachia do not affect them. The acquisition of land by large corporations is proceeding at a rapid pace all across this country. The people of Appalachia are practiced in patience and experienced in the ways of exploitation and abandonment. If the rest of the nation will come to listen instead of to preach and to steal, we have much to teach.