Friday, February 25, 2011

Parkersburg, WV is Building a Movement for Healthy Water

Written by Event Organizer and Parkersburg Resident Angie Iafrate

For the last decade or so, I’ve considered myself to have an activist’s spirit. I’ve marched on Washington for various reasons, written letters to the editor and emailed my congress people about various issues, volunteered with local nonprofit organizations, organized a community event here and there, and tried to stay generally aware of all those social, political, and environmental matters that concerned people are concerned about, even if my understanding of said matters was somewhat shallow. Mountaintop removal was one such issue that I had always been theoretically against, but never really knew enough about to take it on as “my” cause. Honestly, being raised in Parkersburg, WV, what passes for a metropolitan area in our great Mountain State and seemingly a world away from “coal country," I felt like a bit of an outsider, like the issue was not mine to be had. And besides, by no means an expert in environmental science, ecology, etc, my only argument in defense of my position was a simple, “Blowing up mountains is wrong—you know that they will never grow back!” Beyond that, I didn’t feel like I had the capacity to win any arguments, change any minds, or make any kind of a real difference. Add to that the fact that for most of the past couple years I’ve been a single mom with a baby-to-toddler, a job, and a graduate school course load, and saving the mountains of West Virginia was not really on my immediate to-do list.

Recently having moved back to my hometown with my now-2-year-old son, I was intrigued to hear that mountain activist Larry Gibson (who I was somewhat familiar with via that “general awareness” thing noted above) and filmmaker/activist Mari-Lynn Evans (whose name I was not familiar with but with whose PBS series The Appalachians I was) would be speaking in Marietta, Ohio, just a few miles down the road and across the river, in late January. Wanting to learn more about these issues and always up for hearing the inspiring tales of activists more intrepid and committed than I, I booked Grandma’s babysitting services and headed off to Marietta that cold January night for what would be a truly enlightening experience. Enlightening, I say, because it became crystal clear to me while listening to Larry and Mari-Lynn that this activism isn’t simply about “saving mountains;” rather, it is above all about the people who live on those affected mountains and in their affected valleys, and whose health and culture are suffering at the hands of industrial and political negligence. And that was something that, once I looked it in the eye, I could not in good conscience look away from.

And look away I didn’t. That night after hearing Larry and Mari-Lynn speak, I jumped onto the internet and started searching for a way to get involved. I read everything I could find about MTR, “liked” all the pages of relevant organizations on Facebook, and did all the other things people do on the web to get connected. Over the next week or two, I found my enthusiasm about getting involved just as strong as it had been that first night, if not stronger, probably because now I actually knew something about the issue and realized that there was much more to the argument than "mountains never grow back." I was still reading, still watching, and still keeping my feelers out for ways to get involved when the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation Page appeared in my Facebook news feed. I clicked on the note to discover that an old college activist friend, Danny Chiotos, was the Operations Director and looking for a few good wo/men to help with organizing events across the state. I immediately contacted Danny, who put me in touch with a couple other Wood County residents that had also attended the Larry/Mari-Lynn event and gotten in touch with the foundation soon after. As it turned out, I was not the only one who cared about these issues in my hometown, which I’d always considered to be discouragingly conservative and apathetic, if the truth be told. Discovering that I was not alone was energizing!

As the three of us were geared up to do something, Danny informed us that there was some urgent legislation up for action this legislative session, ending on March 12, that needed our immediate attention: the Alternative Coal Slurry Disposal Act, which would prohibit coal companies from disposing of chemical-laiden coal-washing waste water by injecting it into abandoned underground mines--where it then seeps into the groundwater supply and consequently is poisoning the community members who drink it. (Coal companies adamantly deny it, naturally, but common sense and scientific evidence alike refute the resoluteness of their claim.) He and the Sludge Safety Project (SSP), a coalition of groups and individuals concerned about these coal-related water-safety issues, suggested organizing a meeting here in Parkersburg to inform our local residents about the issue and encourage them to pressure their legislators to support the act, as it would take the support of legislators from all over the state--not just in the small communities directly affected--to get the bill through. I had a roller-coaster of reactions to organizing the meeting. First, I was enthusiastic and excited that there was something so immediate and concrete that could be done. Then, when I realized we had only a little over a week to publicize it, I was skeptical that I could pull off my end of the deal (i.e, getting the logistics taken care of and bodies in the seats) with the little “spare” time I generally have in life as it is. But when Danny and the SSP assured us that they would be happy with a turnout of even just 5-10 people, I chilled out a bit and decided to go for it, warning all parties involved that I couldn’t promise any miracles as far as a crowd but that I’d do the best I could.

There was no time to waste, so waste time I didn’t! With large thanks to my mother who kept an eye on my son as I was neglecting my parental duties in favor of activism (hey, it’s better than neglecting them for wild nights out at the bar, right?), within 2-3 days I had Photoshopped a flyer, plastered it around town, put it on a few car windshields when I happened to notice their “I Love Mountains” bumper stickers, sent it to my Wood County cohorts and asked them to do the same, created a Facebook event page, sent a blurb to the local newspaper, emailed a few local community groups where I thought we might find symphathizers, and did some minor Facebook harassment of friends and acquaintances who might be interested in spreading the word. I still wasn’t sure if people would come, but since I knew I would be there, and my brother promised to be there, and Russ and Phil and their wives would be there, I was comforted by the fact that if all else failed, we would at least have 6 attendees, and that would make the event a success if we were only aiming for 5-10.

A week flew by pretty quickly, and it was show time! I had to wonder, though, if this was a show we were putting on for ourselves. Are people around here actually concerned about issues like coal slurry when, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like “our” issue up here in Wood County, and when 95% of them have probably never even heard the term "coal slurry" before this? (I, by the way, was one of those just a month ago!) A little bit of time would tell.

The event was scheduled for Wednesday, February 23rd at 7pm. On February 23rd at 6:40pm, I was in the room by myself, with our three presenters out to grab a bite of pizza, and the one lady who had shown up very early outside reading a magazine. Hmmm…should I start to worry? Apparently not, because by 6:45pm, people had started filing in. People who weren’t Russ or Phil, or their wives, or my brother. People I had never harassed on Facebook, and had never really seen before in my life. Wow, all that hard work of publicizing really paid off! People care and want to come! By the start of the presentation, we had twenty-one people in the room (twenty-two, counting a wonderfully-behaved one-year-old!) and with a couple of late stragglers, we had a total of 25 attendees. Annie, Mat, and Becca from the SSP gave an excellent presentation, even though our featured speaker from KotM had a last-minute emergency and couldn't make it up north. I think we were all surprised by the success in terms of numbers, and even more pleased by the fact that the crowd was engaged in the topic, asking questions, and really seemed to care about what is going on around these slurry injection sites and about the people who are in many cases literally dying with all signs pointing to a toxic water supply.

Later that night I sent an email to everyone who had provided an address, thanking them for coming to the event and reminding them of the next-day action we suggested taking at the end of the talk: contacting our legislators on the Finance Committee (where the bill was heading next) and thanking those who supported it in the Judiciary Committe. I heard back from a few who told me they had done so. Hopefully the others did, as well. Phil and Russ both emailed me, too, about setting up a brainstorming meeting to keep the community involved and interested in these issues. If we stay on top of things and continue to reach out to our community, I am confident that we can grow the movement of concerned citizens in the Mid-Ohio Valley-- which is pretty remarkable considering that one month ago, I was only vaguely familiar with these issues myself, and would have bet the proverbial farm that I could count on one hand the number of other Wood County residents who would care enough to learn more, themselves. Sometimes I don't mind being wrong!

Of course, this story doesn’t end only on a positive note. The Alternative Coal Slurry Disposal Act, I am recently informed, is about to be killed, after already having been gutted with the original “ban” language removed in its first committee. The legislature is still, apparently, putting the financial well-being of coal companies at a higher priority than the health of the people. Our efforts in putting this last-minute—and very successful—event together, however, were by no means in vain. Educating the public, who in turn can educate their friends, as well as our legislators when the matter comes up again in legislation (and it WILL come up again), is a vital step to making change. I would encourage all citizens of this great state (or any state affected by these issues), regardless of whether or not they are directly touched by these issues, to follow our lead and start educating their public about what is going on in these communities. For one, you actually are directly touched by these issues, in ways you may just not realize yet. And two, you may be surprised, like we were, to discover just how many people really do care and want to act, but simply need a place to start.