This story was originally reported by PRI's Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.
Up the hill from the Marsh Fork Elementary is a massive earthen dam that holds back a lagoon of semi-liquid waste left over from washing coal. Wiley didn't realize the problem until his granddaughter started missing school due to headaches and nausea. He told "Living on Earth" the story:
She says, 'gramps these coalmines are making us kids sick.' That hurt. That hurt me. You know, it took her tears to wake me up. And it was like a sledgehammer.
More than half of the electricity in the United States is generated by coal-powered plants, and 4 percent of the world's coal is in West Virginia, according to PBS. While getting the coal out of the ground, more than 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried by strip mining waste.
In response, Wiely set out on a 450-mile, 40-day trek from West Virginia to Washington DC to raise money and get the children out of harm's way. Three years later, Wiely's group Pennies of Promise met its funding goal, raising millions of dollars and finally making a new Marsh Fork Elementary possible.
The work isn't done yet, however. Wiely estimates that it will take 14 months to build the new school, and he's laying out the plans to put up temporary, portable classrooms to move the children out earlier. Asked to reflect on the success of his group, Wiely told "Living on Earth":
It's not hitting me yet, believe it or not, it's had a few tears here and there, but I guess the big day is when I come down that road and see the children actually walking in that school. And that'll be my biggest and greatest reward right there.
You can watch a video of Wiely below:
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit.