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Courtesy of Appalachian Voices and Southwings by Kent Kessinger.
Mountaintop Removal Mining
Photo of a mountaintop removal coal mining site at the Mountain near Buffalo, in Logan County, WV.
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Courtesy of Appalachian Voices and by Benji Burrell
On the Front Lines
Marsh Fork Elementary in Sundial, WV, is on the front lines of mountaintop removal, located 150 feet from a coal preparation plant and 400 feet below a leaking dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. Local residents have launched a campaign called Pennies of Promise to build a new school in a safe location in their community.
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Courtesy of Appalachian Voices and Southwings by Kent Kessinger\
Mountaintop Removal Coal Mine
Mountaintop removal coal mine site at Hoover Knob, WV.
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Courtesy of Appalachian Voices and Southwings by Kent Kessinger
Photo of a sludge dam near a mountaintop removal coal mining site near Blair Mountain, in Logan County, WV.
People involved in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) in Appalachian region gathered in West Virginia for a weekend in May, 2006. Some 300 came from 19 states. They ranged from veteran coalfield activists and documentary filmmakers to evangelical Christians and young people fresh out of college, devoting the summer to this Appalachian crusade.
It was the biggest such assembly ever held, a sign of the rising tide of opposition to a form of strip mining that has grown increasingly notorious for laying waste to mountains and their forests, streams and wildlife, and for the consequences inflicted on people who live nearby: flooding, desecration of cemeteries, round-the-clock explosions that damage wells and houses and shatter nerves, and loss of the family “homeplace” and mountain culture. Still, it is the leveling of majestic mountains that seems to disturb people the most. One woman said she “cried for three days” after going to a mountain top removal coal mine site.
The fight is largely between coal companies and local people. Big Coal remains a political powerhouse and the great majority of state and federal officials have kept safely on the sidelines. Meantime, permits for MTR are being granted so fast in Appalachia that opponents fear it soon will be too late to save the mountains.
"We’ve got four or five years left at most," says Judy Bonds, a renowned activist. While still contesting individual MTR permits, Bonds says activists are trying to nationalize the struggle. "You’re not going to beat it just here in West Virginia," she says. The strategy includes using road shows and the Internet to show the face of MTR to Americans all over the country and to persuade them to urge Congress to pass legislation to stop it.
On Many Fronts
In the past two years, the battle has been waged on many fronts, sometimes by surprising people. Coalfield residents have attended hearing after hearing to block permits. In Mingo County, West Virginia, people in several hollows had no potable water for months due to contamination from mining and became ill; volunteers helped organize them to demand a steady supply of clean water [See sidebar on Jen Jackson]. Several environmentalists were reportedly attacked while trying to halt MTR operations on Zeb Mountain in Tennessee. Others blockaded an aging and polluting coal-burning power plant in southwestern Virginia. When the nation’s governors assembled in Atlanta, young people staged street theater to embarrass them about MTR in their states.
The greatest success has come in Tennessee, where volunteers with the environmental group United Mountain Defense monitor strip mining through water testing and the first mapping of the state’s mine sites. They tramp through the mountains and go aloft to take aerial photographs with the help of volunteer pilots, according to UMD’s Pan Appalachian Defender newspaper. By marshaling specific GPS coordinates, high-resolution photos, and scientific data, UMD has gained credibility with state agencies, says founder Chris Irwin. UMD water sampling, adds Irwin, helped prompt the state to fine National Coal $170,000 in 2006 for illegal mining near an MTR site.
Those evangelical Christians who see MTR as a sin against God’s creation have formed Christians for the Mountains and made a DVD film they are urging Appalachian churches to show. A Mennonite group in Kentucky has started giving tours of MTR sites. Two anti-MTR road shows by environmentalists have hopscotched across the country, carrying the message to churches, campuses and service clubs to build national support. Separately, artist Jeff Chapman-Crane has created a large traveling sculpture depicting the earth’s agony beneath MTR.
Aerial views, online.
Environmentalists have long said that if enough Americans were flown over MTR sites, a shocked nation would end the practice soon. Now a web site is providing the next-best thing by using new technologies to present aerial views of these locales. It uses Google Earth to show the more than 470 mountains in the Appalachian region that have been destroyed to date and brings home the vast scale of these operations by superimposing the outline of one MTR site on maps of various cities. ilovemountains.org
The web site was not advertised until launched for fear of sabotage. “I don’t trust the coal companies to play fair,” says its designer, Matt Wasson of the group Appalachian Voices.
The Associated Press ran a feature on the website, which scores of media outlets picked up. In the first two days after the story ran, the count of people who had viewed a video on the site jumped from 6,000 to 10,000. Popular web tools like CNET and Netsquared are praising the site and directing readers to it. The site has had an impact on people.“ I am shocked to see vast areas of Appalachia unfit for human habitation,” wrote C.G. Hughes of Kentucky.
Meantime, opponents continue to challenge MTR in federal court. They recently brought a fourth major lawsuit. Like two earlier cases now on appeal, a favorable ruling could put a hold on all pending MTR permits and lead to new permits being curtailed in number and size. However, three times the conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out decisions by lower courts to limit MTR. The judicial route to change appears difficult.
Publications and Films
There also has been a recent outpouring of articles, books and films exposing MTR to a national audience. Features have appeared in 2006 in Orion (January), National Geographic (March), Vanity Fair (May)and O (Oprah) (July).Recent books include Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining, and the Devastation of Appalachia by Eric Reece; Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future by Jeff Goodell; and Missing Mountains: We Went to the Moutaintop but It Wasn’t There, edited by Kristin Johannsen, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Mary Ann Taylor-Hall.
Documentaries have been made by professional filmmakers and amateurs, including an exceptional film by a college junior and another by three high school students. Even a compelling cartoon strip has appeared. Click here to visit the website. More books and films are in the works.
One boy's death
It all began with the death of three-year-old Jeremy Davidson in the town of Appalachia, VA, crushed in his bed one night in August 2004. A boulder dislodged by a bulldozer on a MTR site rolled down a mountain and crashed into his bedroom at 2:30 a.m. A memorial march drew mining activists and led to plans for stepped-up resistance to MTR, including the first Mountain Justice Summer. This venture attracted upwards of 200 idealistic young people from campuses and elsewhere, trained them in everything from Appalachian customs to nonviolence, and sent them into communities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, where they worked with older local activists. Some likened the campaign to Mississippi Freedom Summer in the civil rights era.
Mountain Justice Summer volunteers went door to door listening to people’s concerns about their communities, made them aware of MTR’s consequences, and took part in various protests. A number chose civil disobedience and were arrested. Some young people decided to stay in Appalachia and joined the staffs of local grassroots groups.
A second Mountain Justice Summer took place in 2006 with more volunteers. Some veterans returned and newcomers were recruited. They went to places like the town of Appalachia; Mingo County and the Coal River Valley in West Virginia; Knoxville, Tenn.; Asheville, N.C. and the top of Kentucky’s Pine Mountain. This time the emphasis was on community organizing and building the scientific, legal and cultural case against MTR. Mountain Justice Summer has now developed into a year-round campaign.
The poster children for mountain top removal have been the students at Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, W.Va. Respiratory illness was found prevalent at the school in 2006 and three teachers and a 17-year-old former student have died of cancer. The school sits next to a giant coal mine and in the shadow of a huge coal-loading and coal dust-producing silo, near pools of toxic chemicals and below a dam holding a vast lake of toxic sludge.
Parents worry their children are breathing coal dust and that the dam may give way if it rains hard enough. Close to the school blasting goes on at a three-square-mile MTR operation, frightening students, who also fear the dam may break.
A one-man sit-in
Some local people want the school moved. A year of protest marches, civil disobedience, a one-man sit-in at the capitol and promises by the governor to take action made little difference. Although a permit to build a second silo behind the school was revoked and a dangerous ammonia tank 600 feet away was removed, most dangers remain. Finally, a campaign to raise money for a new school from the nation’s schoolchildren was begun, and Ed Wiley, a former miner who staged the sit-in and whose granddaughter had just graduated from the school, walked 42 days and 455 miles to Washington, D.C. to find help for the students. People he met along the way donated about $5,000. A father gave Wiley the only dollar in his wallet. Wiley met and prayed on his knees with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), who said he would do all he could to move the school. Meanwhile, a federal investigation of conditions at the school was dismissed as a “sham” by local activists.
Knocking on Congress’ door
Wiley’s arrival on September 13, 2006 coincided with three days of citizen lobbying of Congress about MTR organized by Appalachian Voices and other grassroots groups. Some 70 people came to Washington, D.C. from 13 states. About two thirds lived outside of the Appalachian mountains and had been recruited through the road shows. The lobbying got considerable press coverage, including ABC, Fox News, and NPR. Visiting more than 80 congressional offices in small teams, they argued for a bill (the Clean Water Protection Act) that would prohibit the dumping of mine waste into streams, thus all but eliminating further MTR operations.
They succeeded in winning 10 new cosponsors, including two from the coalfields, pleasing their chief strategist Lenny Kohm. The bill now has 77 cosponsors. With Democrats now in control of Congress, Kohm says he is preparing the ground for passage of the bill in the next few years.
Now the spotlight has shifted back to the state level. In November 2006, a bill was proposed in Tennessee that would abolish MTR and all other strip mining. Both the legislature and governor have already sought to rein in the industry, and at least one observer gives the bill a fighting chance. Supporters of the legislation hope passage would spur other Appalachian coal-producing states to also ban stripping, But West Virginia and Kentucky the are far more dependent on coal economically and the industry is much more powerful politically in these two states. Abolition there would be a tall order.
Young Activism: The Fight for Clean Water
Last summer, Jen Jackson, 22 and a year out of college, went to the West Virginia coalfields to work as a community organizer. She was sent by Mountain Justice Summer and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) to help people in a part of Mingo County who had no usable water. Their wells were suspected of being contaminated when slurry, a waste product of coal processing from MTR and other mining, found its way into the water table. Strange things were happening. Jackson remembers hearing stories, as she wrote for OVEC’s newletter, “of fish being cut open – appearing normal from the outside, but black as coal on the inside; of a hunted deer found rotting away from the inside out. Animals rotting on the inside, walking around with a normal appearance."
She had first gone to see an MTR site while at James Madison University in Virginia. While on an internship in Oregon after graduating, a friend told her about the Mingo project and she returned east. She had just started to learn about community organizing. In Mingo, she and a half dozen other volunteers jumped into it.
“I’ve always felt the responsibility to take care of the earth,” she says, “and so wasn’t really afraid.”
“At first, our strategy was to go door to door asking people survey questions to gauge how people felt about their community… if we'd find someone who was really pissed off about coal and the effects of the industry, we’d go back some other time and ask them more questions.”
Then they got a hold of a list of residents temporarily receiving water from the state and a list of people who had called to complain about water problems. They phoned these people and found many really wanted to talk to them.
Jackson says although the young organizers were clearly outsiders and went in pairs for reasons of safety, she never felt threatened or unsafe. Once, she says, “I ended up at the house of a few mountaintop removal, aboveground miners, and they said, ‘Oh, so y’all are those people going around asking questions’ blah blah blah ‘When’s the protest gonna be?’ So they just kind of laughed us off.”
Before the organizers arrived, the citizens had filed a lawsuit. In July a county judge ruled that Massey Energy Co. must pay for weekly delivery of bottled water to certain households until pipelines are built to bring Williamson city water in.
“The lawsuit and the city water are major victories the people, united and organized, created,” Jackson wrote in the newsletter.
But she added, “What about other hollers that are about to be in similar circumstances? Slurry injections and impoundments continue to contaminate the area. What happens when enough of the tributaries feeding the Tug Fork, where Williamson draws its water, are poisoned? Will the city water coming through the pipelines be too poisoned to drink?”
Jackson says she’ll be working on organic farms next summer but hopes to “plug into Mountain Justice Summer however I can.”