Friday, April 22, 2011

A Journey: Where is MTR Taking Me?

 Written by On The Road Again Speaker and Athens, WV Resident Wendy Johnston

            Two years ago, I barely knew anything about mountaintop removal mining.  I thought that it wasn’t occurring near me and though it was terrible, how did it affect me?  Well that was just before I discovered a pending application for surface mining on a mountain close to where I grew up.  Wow! Talk about an eye opener. I had just started Grad School, I had a job, one child in college and two headed that way soon.  I also lived on a farm and had numerous other commitments to fulfill.  How would I have time to fight such a thing? What would be the repercussions if I did? I had more questions about my own involvement in this one thing than anything I had ever contemplated in my life.  Before I knew it, I was thrown head first into a battle to save mountains, a region, a people and a culture that had been a part of me since my ancestors first came here over 200 years ago.  With lots of doubt, fear and cowardice I headed into a battle that I was not and am not sure now that I could win.            

            Two years into this fight to save our world, which is what this has become, I  am not quite as afraid as I was at the beginning.  I have finished grad school and resigned from my job at the local library.  I have another child in college and one more headed that way soon. My parents, husband and I have started a CSA, selling shares of our vegetables grown in an acre and a half garden, to our neighbors and friends.  There is now fresh lamb meat and beef available for sale directly from my freezer and the battle to save Appalachia rages on.  I wonder at times if I have the energy and time to continue as a mountain soldier.  I have discovered that if we can save Appalachia from the destruction of mountaintop removal that we may be able to save the fresh water supply of millions of people.  I have learned that when a mountain is destroyed that the communities around it disappear. I have learned that when those communities disappear so does a way of life that has survived for generations.  I have also met some of the most amazing, giving, intelligent and hardworking people that I could ever imagine knowing.  A network of people who have joined together from every walk of life that you could imagine to fight for clean air and clean water and to save what is left of Appalachia for the future generations.

            Last night this battle took another turn in a twisting and winding road that has left me on the doorstop of strangers wondering where I will be led next.  I met a family last night that lives on the edge of the only active mine site in our county.  This is close to the same site that was proposed in that application that I discovered two years ago.  In our county the land is divided by the Bluestone River, a small river that carries fresh water from our mountain headwater streams to the New River, to the Kanawha River, to the Ohio River, to every home that has a faucet in the southeastern United States.  On one side of this river is land that has been farmed by generations of agriculturally minded immigrants who settled this land to find peace and happiness.  On the other side of the Bluestone there are beautiful, steep and rugged mountains that hide small and almost forgotten communities.  These same mountains also hide, coal, the mineral that is the source of greed and power for many and the source of cheap electricity for many more.  For many years this thing called coal was mined from underground in this part of Mercer County, providing numerous local residents with a way to make a living that had been the way of their ancestors before them.

Photo by Wendy's Father, Sid Moye, of the Strip Mine in Mercer County
            The underground mines have long since taken their bounty from these mountains and left the communities to wither away.  The coal industry not only took the mineral from these places but also the very life of the communities as they rolled on out of town with large profits, leaving behind virtual ghost towns.  Sneaking in behind this once thriving underground mining industry were those waiting to rape these mountains of the last of the coal left here.  Very few people even know that there is a 120 acre active surface mine in Mercer County where as few as 14 men work daily to explode the mountainside and take what is left of the coal that could not be mined from underground.  Coal that was meant to purify the abundance of fresh water that could be found in the valleys of these high ridge tops providing drinking water for miles and miles of communities.  This is not the mining of the “boom” days when hundreds of families lived up every holler in southern West Virginia. This is the mining that is destroying what is left of those communities.

            Last night I sat on the front porch of a simple framed house, by a rapidly running creek at the foot of Browning Lambert Mountain and I looked into the faces of those who would soon not have water flowing into their homes as they had for years, those who may not have homes at all if the mining company is allowed to continue raping and pillaging the mountain.  This is where I am now in this battle.  Educating others about what is actually happening and what will continue to happen if they don’t rise up and fight.

            As I sat there talking, spewing out information that I have been gathering for two years, I wondered if I didn’t sound like someone speaking a foreign language to them.  I wondered if when I left, did they feel as exhausted as I did when I was first learning what was occurring all over Appalachia.  Did they feel overwhelmed by the information my Dad and I had heaped on them, telling them what they must do in order to protect all that they hold dear? I know that when I was first learning and studying, I was incredulous, wondering how the industry could get away with what was happening in Appalachia.  The difference was, these folks already knew not to trust those people. They have spent years being mistreated by the industry and those who should have been holding them to task.  They expected to be lied to by the blasting agent who had met with them the week before. While I had spent years thinking that the Department of Environmental Protection was just that, years of believing that these inspectors were protecting the mountains that I called home, these folks knew that they weren’t and had accepted it.  They were also a step ahead in that they had already organized their neighborhood with an initial meeting with the blasting agent and had realized that they were being lied to and would need outside help.  Now, my job and my Dad’s, will be to provide them with the information they need and to connect them with people who will teach them how to hold the company to task.

            Although the path of this journey is ever changing, my goal is still the same.  My goal is to do my part to save the culture and people of Appalachia, to save the mountains that have been home to animals and plant life that have sustained these same people for generations and to leave the world that my children and grandchildren will inherit a little better than what it is now. My goal is also to educate those who are ignorant of the atrocities that are destroying this world. I hope that when my journey ends that my children and grandchildren and those who have learned from what I have shared with them will carry on with the same goals. I only hope that by starting on them earlier than I did that they will be able to do more to save this life giving land that we have been instructed to care for.