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.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Making Sunday Afternoon Sweet With The Bees

Written by Event Organizer and Charleston, WV Volunteer Leah Smith

The Beehive Design Collective tours around the country educating folks about something many have never heard of before---mountaintop removal. But when the bees came to the Covenant House in Charleston on Sunday, March 27th, they were greeted by fifty local community members, many of whom know mountaintop removal more than anyone would want to.

Some of these community members are coalfield residents who feel the affects of mountaintop removal everyday. Keeper of the Mountains Foundation Speakers Junior Walk, Pamela See and Side Moye started off the event. They powerfully shared their stories of living in the coal fields. Junior Walk grew up drinking poisoned water, and he and his family have worked for the coal industry. Pamela See moved to WV more recently and already is seeing the effects of the poisoned water on her body. Sid Moye has seen mountaintop removal move into his area where he tries to farm.

The members of the Beehive Collective, the Bees, then asked everyone to gather together in the front of the room for an exercise in sharing experiences and ideas about mountaintop removal. They asked various people from the crowd to read statements like, “I could educate someone about MTR,” “I consider myself an activist,” and “I feel connected to coal.” As the statements were spoken, everyone was asked to come close to the center of the group if they strongly agreed, and further out if they didn’t. This physical display opened an engaging discussion of people’s collective experience.

Throughout the afternoon, community members in attendance shared their knowledge of heavy metals in the water, of how orange ooze has come up from their gardens, and how their canning has gone rotten (within a family who has been canning for sixty years). Stories of how individuals can’t get MRIs to check out the amount of lead in their bloodstreams because the magnets may attract the heavy metals to such a degree that it would hurt their bodies. We heard from a school teacher who sees corporate sponsorship of ball fields and recreational activities instead of computer labs or science departments, which would bring our children greater intelligence and ability to move beyond the monoeconomy of the coalfields they grow up in.

The Bees, originally coming out of Northern Maine, are aware of their positions as outsiders. As they spent three years researching, story collecting, and creating “The True Cost of Coal” banner, they listened to what communities told them about the role of outsiders. In an area where most land is owned by absentee landowners (out-of-state companies own more than 3/4 the surface acreage of McDowell County and 2/3 of Logan County), where outsiders are known for broken promises and systematically ignoring responsibility for their actions, the Bees carefully listened to what their role as outsiders should be. We could all see this as they very thoughtfully and intentionally gave their presentation. They gently and creatively told the stories they have heard, giving very inviting space for anyone in the room to add anything they felt was left out or anything that was thought to be said wrong.

The Bees used their poster full of metaphors, plants, insects, and animals to tell the history of the Appalachians -- the indigenous roots, times when agriculture was king, the corporate buying of land through the broad form deed, reign of company towns and gun thugs, all the while giving strong examples of warriors who have been fighting for justice. They closed with a few examples of (the many many) present day warriors and community organizers, a way to spread ideas and action. They encouraged discussion on what everyone in the room is locally involved with and how new folks could plug into current organizing and increase the movement, such as the Sludge Safety Project and The March on Blair Mountain, which will hopefully keep this interest building!

Thanks to all who came out to teach and learn!

Two Days in Gainesville

Written by Event Organizer and Gainesville, FL Volunteer Jason Fults

Last week, Larry visited Gainesville, FL to inform residents of the impacts of mountaintop removal (MTR) and our connections to the Appalachian coalfields.  Our growing community has become quite the consumer of Appalachian coal, with more than 60% of our city-owned utility's energy coming from coal.  Larry was invited to Gainesville as part of the Cinema Verde Environmental Film & Arts Festival, where Low Coal, which is a new film which features Larry, was screened.  Low Coal  endeavors to tell the stories of Appalachian residents whose lives have been impacted by the coal industry.

The film screening was the focal point of Larry's two-day visit, and welcomed more than forty attendees.  One of those attendees was our city's Mayor, Craig Lowe, and an article about Larry with a picture of him meeting the Mayor was printed on the front page of The Alligator the next day.

During his stay, Larry also gave a presentation at the University of FL, networked with local conservationists, spoke with the media, and met with administrators from Gainesville Regional Utilities.  GRU is a progressive, municipally-owned utility, and is investing heavily in biomass and started one of our nation's most ambitious solar incentive programs.  They were very receptive to Larry's visit and open to further discussions with concerned citizens.  Larry and company also “crashed” a county commission meeting where local conservation issues were being discussed to bring his visit and the reasons for it to their attention.  Throughout these activities, Larry gave a stirring argument for reducing our consumption of MTR coal and invited Gainesville residents to visit Kayford and see firsthand the destruction that MTR has caused.

Our next steps will include working with our Regional Utilities Committee and local politicians to review our coal procurement policies and discussing the possibility of forming a Gainesville delegation to visit the coalfields.  Undoubtedly, Larry made a lot of new friends here, and we hope that he'll be back to visit us again soon.  Next time however, we hope that his visit will be a celebration of our successful campaigning to build justice in the coalfields of Appalachia!