PINEVILLE, W.Va. — The college girls who file in for night classes sport varsity jackets and wear their boyfriends' high school rings, fitted with adhesive tape, around their middle fingers.
Most of the time David Corcoran, their philosophy teacher, talks about the benefits of pursuing truth. Tonight he is talking about the benefits of pursuing a nuclear waste repository.
His passion suggests that these quests are comparable, if not synonymous.
"For 100 years, 103 years, our area has been exploited," Corcoran tells the class. "And this looks like it is going to be the first industry that we get that does not exploit because it is federal."
For the last eight months, Corcoran, publisher of the Welch Daily News, has headed the campaign to bring a high-level nuclear waste storage facility to either McDowell or adjoining Wyoming County.
It is a distinction that citizens of other states have organized to avoid. But southern West Virginia is sliding down the slope of a potentially bottomless depression. After a century as the sole engine of this area's economy, the coal industry is pulling out, leaving a devastated community behind.
"I don't want us to become a ghost town if we don't have to," Corcoran says.
So, night after night, he preaches the good nukes. Rotaries. Town councils. PTAs. Corcoran has addressed them all. Tonight 35 students at Southern West Virginia Community College constitute his audience. They ask few questions and take few notes, but apparently they leave converted.
Folks who don't feel so warmly about nuclear waste are flabbergasted by the irony of Corcoran's efforts. After a century of having their land ravaged by energy companies, they ask, can their only salvation be a ravishing that, potentially, could last forever?
"Who's on the task force?" a young man asks him.
"The task force is mainly me," Corcoran says. "I'm the chairman." He looks around the room. "I wouldn't be sticking my neck out if I wasn't working for out-of-work people."
The door handle on the driver's side of his pickup is broken, so Jeff Hazzard opens the passenger's side, stretches across the seat, pops the other door open and walks back around the cab. He is an out-of-work person, has been for three years since he lost his job with the Cannelton Coal Co. His twin brother, Jerry, works for USX, digging coal at its Pineville mine.
Jeff has lived in the coal fields for 50 of his 52 years, seen boom as well as bust. He's been a welder, worked the mines, hauled coal and tried a handful of odd jobs.
Now he's learning to deal with the pervasive unemployment in McDowell County, where every third person is looking for a job. This morning he is heading for a union meeting in Welch, the county seat. The landscape he moves through seems a little less vital than he remembers it.
The brick shells of company stores stand in various stages of disintegration along Route 52. The gray stone crosses in small family cemeteries are made almost invisible by bountiful weeds. It is always worse after a rain when steam rises from the roofs of roadside cabins, and it seems as though the buildings are vaporizing. A group of old men sit in front of the union local in Maybeury. Hazzard sees them when he drives out most mornings, and he sees them when he drives back most nights.
Downshifting, he takes the curve into Welch. The city looks like the back end of a bigger town set down in the hollow. Whoever designed these five- and six-story buildings just handed the workers bricks and told them to stop now and then for windows.
In 1975, 10,000 people lived here, but today the population has fallen to 3,300. There aren't any men's stores left. J.C. Penney's has pulled out too. So have Kroger's and Pizza Inn. People were pretty embarrassed that their town couldn't support a Pizza Inn.
In front of the Super 10, Jeff spots two of his nieces and pulls over to find out what time Jerry got home from the mine. If his twin sleeps all afternoon, they won't get a chance to go squirrel hunting until after dinner. And hunting is as good an excuse as any for walking in the woods.
His love of the woods is what set Jeff against the nuclear waste facility.
"If there was anything great to it, they wouldn't offer it to none of us out here," he says. "It's like pouring sulfuric acid in your well. Sure it's jobs, but what we have here is a way of life."
The plant that David Corcoran covets and Jeff Hazzard fears is known as the Monitored Retrievable Storage facility (MRS). The decision on where and whether to build this above-ground, temporary storage site will be made by Congress.
The House is currently working on a bill that does not include an MRS, but the Senate has already passed one that does. The future of southern West Virginia may be decided in a conference committee.