I recently went on a trip with two awesome people from Rainforest Action Network, Branden Barber and Debra Erenberg, to visit Appalachia country in West Virginia. The purpose of the trip was to see first hand what’s happening with mountaintop removal (MTR) due to the affects of coal strip mining. Its one thing to read about and see pictures of MTR, but it’s absolutely another thing to actually see it and to hear the stories from the people who live there. What I saw and learned left me feeling sad, angry, overwhelmed and deeply affected.
We had the great fortune of meeting with four equally impressive people in the area. Each works with a different non-profit group that is fighting to stop this insane large scale devastation. Mike Roselle from Climate Ground Zero talked about the campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience work that this new and emerging organization is doing where local and non-local volunteers are putting themselves at great risk for trying to stop MTR. Mike is great. He is truly a leader in the national and international environmental movement. I know I want him on my side to stand up for a worthy cause. It’s tough work, but thanks to Mike and the people at Climate Ground Zero, they’re bringing national attention to this horrid practice of MTR.
Judy Bonds from Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) comes from a family that has lived in Coal River Valley for 10 generations. She clearly and powerfully talked to us about the rich history and culture of the people there and the mountains they live in. But now, medicinal herbs such as ginseng, black cohosh and goldenseal are disappearing due to MTR. Wild boars are almost extinct and the survival of 150 species of trees is being threatened. People are being forced to move from their homes where they have lived for generations. Where people were once connected to their land, they are now getting denied their culture. It’s becoming a cultural genocide. Gratefully, Judy and CRMW are both working to stop this environmental and cultural destruction and doing what they can to save and rebuild their communities.
Maria Gunnoe from Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) has family roots in the region dating back to the early 1800s. She still lives on her family land, even though mountaintops around her have disappeared and the polluted river running by her house has flooded many times due to the lack of vegetation.
She took us on a tour of the area where we saw yet another town, Lindytown, turning into a deserted and destroyed ghost town because Massey Coal is taking over. We heard about the polluted rivers and polluted air and the fact that more people including young children are getting cancer and dying from the toxins. We heard about all the violence coming from Massey Coal to the local people there who are standing up against MTR. Death threats, homes burned, dogs poisoned and delivered to bus stops for children to see, horses poisoned, verbal harassments, conflicts in stores, and attempts to run cars off the road are all now happening. Are these acts necessary? Is this really America? This is very hard for me to understand. It saddens and angers me to hear such stories. I respect Maria and her values and thank her and OVEC for speaking up and educating communities about the environmental dangers of MTR.
Larry Gibson from Keeper of the Mountains Foundation is an impressive man who is also standing up against MTR. His family has lived on or near Kayford Mountain since the late 1700s. We walked a very short distance from his home there to the edge of one of the coal strip mining projects. We looked down to see a 12,000 acre flattened gravel yard…an area that was once Kayford Mountain. No picture can adequately convey what I saw and what it must feel like to live in an area that was once a beautiful, rich and secluded mountain, but has now been turned into a massive, ugly and barren open-pit dirt yard. It’s mind boggling. It’s beyond destructive. It’s beyond unconsciousness. Larry isn’t a brave man, he’s just a man standing up and speaking up for what is right. And it’s right to save the mountains, preserve the values of the mountain culture and stop coal strip mining from destroying the history of these people and the glory of these mountains. Many thanks to Larry for risking his life and telling his unbelievably sad story.
It was a pleasure and honor to meet such passionate, concerned, authentic and caring people. Against personal threats and other acts of hate crimes, these people are standing up not only for their land, culture, heritage, families, health and lives, but they are standing up for the health of the planet by dealing with the serious problem of coal contributing to climate change. They all need support in whatever ways we can give them. For information on the above non-profits and how to help, visit:
Finally, many thanks to Rainforest Action Network (RAN) for allowing me to join them on this valuable yet difficult trip. RAN is a phenomenal non-profit group that affectively takes aggressive action to protect environments throughout the entire world. RAN is supporting these groups in WV by actively fighting for a coal-free energy future. According to Judy Bonds, RAN’s corporate campaigns to stop major banks from funding coal, logging, and tar sands are making a big difference. RAN is also offering training, fundraising support and general advice to these smaller WV groups.
For everyone involved in standing up against MTR….I deeply thank you.