Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mountaintop Removal Week 1

Emily Pike, Environmental Policy Major, Advocacy internship on Mountaintop Removal with Christians for the Mountains in Appalachia

17 May 2009
Day 1
I arrived in West Virginia today for my grassroots internship. The flight was smooth as I landed on the first flattened mountain I’d ever seen. I rode a few hours across the state and saw vast, beautifully forested mountains. The roads wound around them and over the top. I arrived at my destination for the week: the Mountain Justice Training Camp. I will learn the basics of mountaintop removal, what it causes, and how I can change this terror. I will attend workshops to teach me about the area’s culture, nature, economics, and policies. So far I have watched a video about the health costs of mountaintop removal in local communities. Needless to say: it’s devastating.
18 May 2009
Day 2
Today I learned the basics about mountaintop removal. Basically “mountaintop removal” is a misnomer, it’s more like “mountain removal.” I learned about the environmental hazards to air, water, landscape, watershed systems, and natural disasters – mainly floods. I learned about the human hazards from the devastation to the environment and lands tied close to the hearts of the Appalachian people (mind you these affects are physical, mental, and emotional). I also learned about the sheer corruption of environmental regulation agencies in Appalachia. The DEP, EPA, and the surface mining agencies are so influenced by the coal companies. Since 2004 Massey Energy and other big coal companies have broken an average of 2 reported laws a day and should have been fined millions of dollars for this. However, they were only fined $4600 and haven’t even been asked to pay that. Also, these are only the cases that the agencies reported and took note of; thousands of other illegal actions have been ignored. I also learned about how to work with and around the media. This included messaging and framing and the process of involving the media in direct, non-violent actions. However, the most important thing I learned today was about Appalachian culture and ethnicity. The Appalachian people are greatly stereotyped and misunderstood. They are not the dirty, stupid, hillbillies that we usually think of. The Appalachian people are genius musicians, artists, and writers. They have played major roles that have remained hidden in the abolition of slavery, the New York Times, tearing apart segregation, and many other important historical moments. What I gathered is that Appalachian people are basically rural Mainer’s. They love their land, they hunt, fish, they argue about who makes the best pie, hotdog, or cornbread, they work hard, and they’d rather have a pick-up with big wheels than a Mercedes. Because of this cultural connection, it is not hard for us to understand how they feel about the destruction of their mountains, their struggle between finding work and protecting these mountains, and how they feel about the destruction of the homes they worked so hard to build and keep up.
19 May 2009
Day 3
I had a discussion about what theory means and what democracy means; it was a bit tedious, unnecessary, and annoying. I learned about the necessary steps for campus organizing and leading campaigns, how to connect campuses to communities respectfully and remove the college ‘bubble’, and the history of the opposition to strip mining and mountaintop removal. Did you know that Senator Rockefeller came to West Virginia as a Vista worker and worked hard to completely abolish strip mining? When his following election went bad, he switched sides and is now a staunch supporting of mountaintop removal. I also heard from some local activists: their stories and adventures. They all sleep with guns because their lives have been threatened as they act to protect their lives and lands. Some really interesting things were said, like how the coal companies are trying to pursue mountaintop removal in Alaska! The best were the quotes that I gathered: “The problem with the environmental movement is that ya’ll are good people. You’re too easy on ‘em” (Cecil Roberts). “We dread the blasts every day: the shake and dust – silica dust from the rock, ammonia nitrate and diesel fuel to block up the rock, heavy metals, and particulates small enough to be absorbed into your blood stream” (Bo Webb) and “The thing that made the rallies in the 60s so popular compared to today was good food, good music, and sexy girls” (Judy Bonds, Goldman Environmental Prize winner).
20 May 2009
Day 4
Today I learned about the Kingston Coal Ash Disaster. In Kingston and Harriman, Tennessee a coal ash impoundment (where coal ash is stored when brushes collect it from smoke stacks at coal powered power plants to reduce air pollution) broke loose and flooded the river-side community with millions of gallons of coal ash: cancer and destruction. TVA (the power plant) told the people to boil their water to get rid of the chemicals. Boiling water only kills bacteria, the water in Kingston was black and polluted with chemicals – boiling would only concentrate the pollutants. We never heard about this (the biggest environmental disaster in years) because TVA has their own federal police that stopped media from coming in, arrested relief groups, and blocked the roads to anyone but residents and sometimes close family of residents. Check out this before and after video that a resident made .
I also learned the basics of community organizing and discussed problems with economics, economics in Appalachia, and Solidarity Economics. Jack Sparado came to speak and we watched the video “Mucked.”
21 May 2009
Day 5
I learned how to exhaust administrative remedies. Basically request mine site visits and personally interviews with the regulation agencies to pin illegal actions on the coal companies, bring along judges and congresspeople to see the true disasters, or to find endangered plants or animals to get a mining permit revoked :D
22 May 2009
Day 6
I learned about underground mining. It eventually makes a mountain collapse in certain areas: still completely destructive but less so.
23 May 2009
Day 7
I left camp today and went to the house I’ll be staying in for the rest of my time in West Virginia. Everyone else from camp went to an action: some got arrested and others not. Ex-Senator Ken Hechler of West Virginia (over 90 years old) tried to get arrested because the publicity would do wonders for this issue, but the cops wouldn’t do it. Hechler said that had he known he would have placed himself in the cop car to get arrested. While everyone else was at the action I sent a letter to every Senator in the US about mountaintop removal.
Check out the action here:

While everyone else was at the action I sent a letter to every Senator in the US about mountaintop removal.

I wrote this at some odd point in the week:
I feel like screaming at people because of what's happening here. Mountains that people live on are being blown up, people are breathing in the coal, drinking black water, dying from floods after it rains because the trees are gone and are replaced with valleys filled with all the rock blasted away from the mountain, dying from floods because the sludge ponds broke (ponds where they put the mine waste), getting covered in inches of coal a day in refinery towns, people in coal power plant towns dropping like flies with cancer. It's so sad and we don't need to mine this way. And the Appalachian people that are most affected by it aren't getting a voice because people think they're stupid hillbillies, which totally isn't true. They are Mainers essentially. The culture, ethnicity, and values are the same as us and they are just as smart. The only difference is that rich people don't care about their mountains enough to protect them and the coal companies have always owned their mountains anyway and as a result they're dirt poor. This type of mining requires fewer workers, so it's reducing jobs. Towns without mining are beautiful booming towns, while the mining towns are so destitute. It's absolutely horrible.

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