Over the past months, I have spent a lot of time writing and talking about the environmental crisis in Appalachia around the coal industry. This week, I took a heartbreaking, yet inspiring, trip to the mountains of West Virginia to spend some time with folks working to stop strip mining and mountaintop removal throughout the Appalachian Mountains.
My first 2 days were at Mountain Justice Summer camp with people who are spending the summer in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina building a base of support against these awful practices. In West Virginia, hit particularly hard by the operations of Massey Coal, local groups Coal River Mountain Watch and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition are focusing on Raleigh and Mingo Counties (made famous by a 1920 coal strike and the 1987 John Sayles movie Matewan) where organizers and volunteers will be talking and listening in local communities. The state has been giving Massey permits all over the region to blast and destroy great swathes of land for coal extraction. West Virginia governor Joe Manchin has said that the statehouse is “open for business,” Mountain Justice activists are responding for a 3rd year in a row with organizing and action in the area.
Massey’s mining techniques don’t just destroy eco-systems and bury rivers and streams, but destroy the communities living there as well. Kayford Mountain, the family home of Larry Gibson for over 200 years, is under complete attack by Massey. Hiking around Kayford Mountain I not only saw that the surrounding mountaintops have been to moonscape, but the company is now encroaching on the property via legal and illegal means. Here’s a quote from a recent article in Vanity Fair–
“They tell their miners that Gibson is out to take their jobs away. In response, Gibson claims, miners have shot up his place when he was there;
his trailer has the bullet to show for it. They’ve torched one of his cottages. They’ve shot one of his dogs and tried to hang another. They’ve forced
his pickup off the road, tipping it into a ditch, and paused long enough to laugh at him as he tried to get out. Gibson keeps a
growing list of all the acts of violence and vandalism committed against him and his property. Currently, it totals 119.”
Despite the harassment, Larry Gibson remains on Kayford Mountain to resist Massey.
Marsh Fork Elementary is another injustice being perpetrated in the Coal River Valley by Massey Coal. Built along Route 3 and the Coal River, you can clearly see that Marsh Fork Elementary stands next to a coal processing plant owned by a Massey subsidiary. This has led to what you’d expect from a dirty processing plant next to a school— air and water quality problems for the children—but also some things you can’t see. About 225 feet behind the school and processing plant is an impoundment creating what is called a “sludge dam.” This sludge dam holds about 2-3 billion gallons of waste left over from the cleaning of coal at the processing plant. If it were to burst the school would be washed out with black toxic sludge. Currently, parents and community members are pressuring the governor to relocate the school to a safer place.