EASTERN KENTUCKY – A West Liberty man walked from the Slade exit on the Mountain Parkway to Inez last weekend to bring awareness to and raising money for clean water solutions for Martin County, which 20 years after a coal slurry contaminated their water source are still receiving notices on their water bills that the water is not safe to drink or bathe in.
Austin Shuck, 30 years old, from West Liberty, is no stranger to natural disasters.
Shuck was in college at Morehead State University in March 2012 when the tornado ran through the area, destroying everything in its path, including his family home.
“For 10 hours I thought my family was dead,” Shuck told the Independent, remembering the lack of cell service that followed the tornado and inability to reach his loved ones. “Our house and all of our belongings were blown away and my family had to jump over all the hurdles of rebuilding and not getting aid.”
Shuck explained that his family is in the low middle class socioeconomic group, making too much money to qualify for most assistance following the disaster, but not well off enough to just outright rebuild.
“We were stuck, but the community was there for us,” Shuck remembered. “Quite a few people fall in this demographic of falling through the cracks.”
Shuck said he was always a little overweight, but after the tornado he struggled with depression and anxiety, leading him to gain over 150 pounds in three years.
“I was over 400 pounds and ended up with a head injury and the doctor just looked at me and said, ‘you’re going to be dead in 10 years,’” Shuck remembered, noting that was the incentive to make some huge changes in his life.
“I got the gastric sleeve surgery and lost 229 pounds in nine months,” Shuck said. “I was always interested in starting a non-profit, and I had a friend whose son had a brain tumor, so through philanthropy we were able to raise some money to help with his medical bills. He died yesterday, so this walk means even more to me, now.”
Shuck started the Appalachian Pioneer Program, a non-profit organization focused on improving health in Kentucky and Appalachia through art, music, ideas, business and everyday folks, according to its mission statement.
Through his philanthropic work, Shuck and the Appalachian Pioneer Program has raised money for medical bills, $500 for 12 different families for Christmas last year, and $6,000 for a family in Breathitt County who lost everything in the March flooding this year.
“This family – the Salyers – lost everything in the flooding in March, then the dad was working on the house and he got electrocuted and died of a heart attack,” Shuck said. “I know from experience, you can lose your house, but have your family and you still have the home, so I put myself in the shoes of these people. The daughter just started college this fall, and they’ve lost the main supporter and earner in their family. This family needed it the most.”
In total, since he started raising money for charity, he has raised over $14,000 for those in need in the area.
“For a kid from Appalachia with no money, that’s a lot of money,” Shuck laughed.
Shuck said a few years ago he helped with an event where Tyler Childers was raising money and awareness for clean water in Martin County when he learned about a little boy who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 3 years old.
“He had an eye removed and his whole life he battled cancer,” Shuck said. “It’s hard to imagine, but they keep being told their cancer wasn’t related to the water, but it’s on the back of their water bills that if you drink or bath in the water, it could cause cancer and you know at some point they had to have drunk the water at some point.”
In 2000 a coal slurry impoundment broke into an underground mine below it, sending an estimated 306 million gallons of slurry out of the mine openings and down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of the Big Sandy River and its tributaries, as well as the Ohio River, pouring the toxic sludge, containing arsenic and mercury, into the local waterways, killing all aquatic life in the two Tug Fork tributaries affected and contaminating the water supply for over 27,000 residents in the area.
Shuck said Massey Energy, in Martin County, was only fined $5,600, while the community 21 years later is still suffering with inadequate and unsafe water.
So, starting last Friday, October 29, Shuck walked from Slade to Inez, a three-day journey in the rain and the cold, to bring awareness to this problem.
“The main goal is to raise awareness that there’s a community in our state that hasn’t had safe water since October 11, 2000,” Shuck said. “These kids – 19 and 20 years old – they’ve went their whole life and never had safe water. That’s insane and it’s insane that it’s been happening for 21 years.”
Shuck said the main goal is to raise money for clean water logistics to create a water reservoir or well for the community to have safe water, helping the underprivileged people who pay their bills and still can’t drink their own water.
He also explained that raising money for just handing out bottled water seems counterproductive, since that would inevitably cause more plastic waste.
“We gave billionaires going to space for fun,” Shuck said. “If I’ve got to walk 88 miles to bring about some change here, that’s what I’ll do.”
In preparation for the walk, he said he’s been training for the last few weeks, walking at least four or five miles a day, to get his body acclimated to the task, but he was dreading the elevation changes when the Independent talked to him on Thursday night before his walk began.
Shuck also commended Country Boy Brewing, the largest sponsor for the event, as well as the other companies that have chipped in to sponsor the walk, bringing awareness to the community’s need, as well as these local brands.
“I’m excited,” Shuck said the night before his walk began. “I think it’s really sad it’s happening, but a lot of really bad issues are going on here: opioids, obesity, and so much more, but it’s really important and I can’t put a price on how good I feel now. Finding that tenacity to help one another and the ultimate goal of the nonprofit is finding solutions to issues, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Shuck walked through Salyersville on Saturday, remembering how it felt when he had nothing after the tornado and someone helped his family.
“There’s no value you can put on kindness when you’re in the dark,” Shuck said. “Hope is the most valuable currency. We might be raising money, but we’re really raising hope.”
Austin Shuck is the founder of Appalachian Pioneer Program, Kentucky Gentleman Media and What The Shuck?! Podcast, all of which can be found on social media.
To donate to the Walk for Water fundraiser, which will go towards clean water logistics for the Martin County community, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/jseavc-walk-for-water?fbclid=IwAR1pn9uSaQoNFIb3VoS2HZaMbFB6GUu8xMue25IVTUv-f8f5p0_1S5lCC5g.