MANY OF THE 1,500 PEOPLE in and near St. Charles, Va., a mining area in the southwestern corner of the state, spent the summer recovering from the floods that devastated the area in early April. The muck was removed, businesses were reopened and homes, if possible, were salvaged. Life was going ahead. But then, on successive weekends in early October, the rains came again. St. Charles, along with other communities in Lee County, had another disaster. Ten inches of water rose above the river banks and washed through the main street of St. Charles. Virginia's Office of Emergency Services estimates the damage to be $1.4 million.
St. Charles's story would remain a regional matter - the town did not qualify for federal disaster relief even though local officials and citizens pleaded for it - except that it reinforces a pattern that is becoming all too familiar throughout Appalachia: Strip-mining comes into an area, soil waste washes into the rivers and creeks, the siltation settles, rain comes and the clogged watercourses overflow. No definitive link can be established between the stripping and this latest flood, but the circumstantial evidence of a link is persuasive and, according to Mayor Dorothy Langingham, a majority of people in St. Charles are convinced that a connection exists.
Many experts are also convinced that the problem has been aggravated by the national energy crisis and the government's policy of trying to meet present and future shortages by actively promoting greater use of coal. The inevitable result is more strip-mining - and a slackening concern for some of the social and environmental side-effects of this form of coal mining, and of the hardship this can mean for citizens who happen to live in or around the coal fields. If the federal government is part of the problem, it is also supposed to be part of the solution. For years, it was assumed that the Corps of Engineers was protecting communities from floods. In many places it did, but as the floods in April and these recent ones in early October suggest, the protection has been inadequate. Last week, Gov. Mills Godwin asked both the Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority - the latter uses much of the coal from the St. Charles area - to become involved in the clean-up work. Obviously, they should.
But what about future floods? Piling debris on the banks, as was done after April's flood, offers only temporary relief; a hard rain washes it back into the creekbeds. Questions are also raised - once again - about the responsibilities of the coal companies. It's enough that citizens notice what happens the day after a flood: The roads and rails are attended to first, so the outgoing coal trucks and coal trains are not delayed. But it's something else when coal waste is allowed to clog the watercourses and the companies are permitted to dismiss the problem as something for nature to deal with.
Some citizens of St. Charles are looking to TVA for help. Its new chairman, David Freeman, has a reputation for respecting the needs and rights of citizens. But the real solution will come only when calamities like the latest flood in Lee County are looked at as something more than an isolated case of bad luck. Right now, there is a tendency to focus on the chronic ills of Appalachia only fleetingly, when major disasters hit. What is needed is a coordinated and sustained effort by both the government and the coal industry to ensure that what happens to the people in small towns like St. Charles when the rains come doesn't happen over and over again.