Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Raising Awareness and Action at the University of Cincinnati

Written by Geoffrey Bliss, Graduate Student at the University of Cincinnati

On Wednesday April 18th, Donna Branham, Speaker with the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation spoke at the University of Cincinnati’s (UC) MainStreet Cinema. UC is a large public research university located in southern Hamilton County with a total enrollment of 42,421 and the university was a poised to hear her words. Members of students groups such as UC Beyond Coal, part of the nation-wide Beyond Coal Campaign, were in attendance as well as others representing groups working in distinct branches of green initiatives extending towards green building design, political activism and historic preservation.  

The true cost of Mountain Top Removal, the process of extracting coal developed in the 1970s in Appalachia is “a conventional strip mining technique” that involves the clearing, blasting, digging and extraction techniques necessary to obtain coal, forcibly removing 500-800 feet of mountaintop was made very real, clear and deliberate.

This “cost efficient form of coal production,” which has innumerable side affects such as decreasing the number of available mining jobs, furthering economic disparity in the region, destroying old forests, devastating indigenous fish and wildlife communities and adding to a host of other problems distressing the health, safety and welfare of local populations living in close proximity united students, faculty and staff who absorbed information from an unscripted and vivid portrait of destruction for the sake of profits.  

Donna shared her story of fighting Big Coal - after decades of suffering, struggle and personal loss.

She spoke in a delicate but firm voice, a voice, which echoed the continuing struggle of thousands. The perils of mountain top removal suddenly became extremely vivid and real, carried forward by a strong narrative, which mirrored her travels, her experiences and her longing for social justice. The dangers of fueling the continuing demand for energy, especially that companion the countless coal burning power plants, which dominate the countryside in many urban and rural communities in WV, were suddenly brought within full view. The spectrum of desperation indeed demands action, now.  

Donna provided a stirring introduction, presenting a slideshow of images recounting the destruction wrought by Mountain Top Removal in Mingo County WV, which has affected the livelihood of her family, her friends and her entire community. Mingo County, as Donna explained was noted to be one of “…the poorest and most fragile communities in West Virginia,” She then provided audience members with a short documentary with interviews with residents living in the shadow of Kayford Mountain, whose once tall peaks have been slowly torn apart since 1986, which showed images of trees being torn from the ground and blasts devastating mountainsides, all being set to the harmony of traditional Appalachian cultural music, whose lyrics pleaded and begged for change.      

Her story was intimate, comprehensive and emotionally moving. Donna, who still lives on a small farm with her husband, explained how she has through the years filed numerous petitions and written countless letters against Mountain Top Removal, making her an both an “outcast” and a “target” for harassment. “You’re noted to be an enemy if you speak out against coal.” She explained being pushed around in public, receiving threatening letters, phone calls and even a standoff between her husband and the coal company who forcefully demanded to pass through her property without a proper permit. One could only imagine being treated this way.   

The audience remained speechless. Her presentation continued.

She exposed the mass efficiency of Mountain Removal, which has assisted in creating great profits for coal companies, ruining the natural landscape, increasing the risk for surface runoff of rainwater, causing mass flooding in her community while poisoning the air and groundwater, thereby increasingly the likelihood for preexisting conditions such as asthma from air from air and waterborne illnesses. One could only fathom the following questions: How could coal companies allow coal production to cause such terrible destruction fully knowing the adverse affects to health, safety and well-being residents living there? How can they get away with this? How are coal companies able to continue without sympathy, remorse or regret? How can I stop the continuation of this horrendous disaster wrought upon the natural landscape?

Questions such as this would forever permeate the minds of the audience that day.

Donna explained to students how they could become involved but many of them had already filled out or collected advocacy information well before her presentation finished. You and your colleagues have aroused great hope and change in Mingo County and other parts of Appalachia. Your successes and the continuing stories shared through the Keeper of the Mountain’s On the Road Again campaign were incredibly well received at UC and we look forward to seeing you again at our campus soon.

We can only hope to see the full return of the landscape that you so love and are so connected to. Our hearts and minds are with you and your struggle.

And let it be known that a group of vey interested UC students are already planning their visit to Kayford Mountain in coming months!   

Thank you for sharing your story with us at the University of Cincinnati.

Please stay in touch. We certainly will.