From coal dust to Oxycontin

Published 10:09 pm Wednesday, September 17, 2014

By Frank Roberts

Last week, I told you about Oceana, W.Va., where a group of teenage missionaries from First Baptist Church on Main Street visited in 1987. I wrote about their experiences in that town near the Kentucky border and, while researching my update, I learned the town is most often referred to now as Oxyana, which recognizes the pervasive influence of the prescription painkiller Oxycontin.

One resident put it this way on a website about “Oxyana,” a movie concerning the community. “If it weren’t for drugs in town,” he said, “there wouldn’t be a town.”

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The documentary, directed by Sean Dunne, received rave reviews when it was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.

It describes the devastating effects Oxycontin has had on the town of 1,370. says that what is going on in Oceana, “is closer in kind to the world of a medieval plague.”

An exaggeration? Hardly. The film’s website says the beautiful town is, “completely over-ridden with prescription drugs. The addicts — who are the vast majority and all nice enough people — sell, scramble, and steal in an economy of high-times desperation. Men and women die epidemically. They are worn down and out by the pills.”

A former resident, born and raised in Oceana, left in 1997. He said, “Oxy was bad then. It started showing up when I was in high school in the early to mid-’90s,” he told the website. “There’s nothing to do there but drugs and drinking.”

Oceana is in Wyoming County, population 23,200. According to New Republic, “it had the state’s highest rate of fatal overdoses in 2011.”

Sober or high, the interviewees in the film declared the town beyond hope, one resident noting, “Ain’t nothin’ but junkies and hookers hanging out on the streets. Just about everyone here’s on dope. Half of my graduating class is dead, and I’m just 23.”

The town, as another resident pointedly put it, “is completely overrun with prescription drugs.”

As I mentioned last week, the Suffolk teens encountered a fair amount of opposition in their missionary efforts, but they were also blessed with some success. Oceana had been poverty-stricken since the mines were modernized, putting many, many people out of work.

I spent some time there with a lovely, 30ish, curly blonde-haired, smiling woman named Judy Poff. She cheerfully spoke to me about her life, as she held and stroked her Siamese cat and showed off her prize-winning boxers.

While Oceana was alive, jobs were plentiful and salaries were healthy, although the people earning those salaries were not.

Judy worked in the coal mines earning $100 or more a day — a lot of money in ’87. Was it worth it? Negative.

She said her grandfather spent years inhaling the coal dust that gave him black lung disease. His breathing became more difficult each day. The only thing he looked forward to was death.

Not wanting his granddaughter, Judy, to suffer similarly, he constantly implored her to leave the mine.

In addition to the money, Judy also earned a constantly aching back from heavy lifting, and messed-up knees from crawling on the hard, damp underground.

Her story almost had a happy ending. Like so many others in this Appalachian town, “I was laid off after three years. As soon as I was given the news, I went to tell my grandfather that his dream for me had finally come true. I thought it would have been a lift for him to know I was out of the mine.”

He never received that good news. “That morning,” Judy said, “he died.”

Oceana has “progressed” from one killer to another — from coal dust to Oxycontin.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at