Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

To tell the truth

Friday, August 22nd, 2014 - posted by tom
AV's Director of Programs Matt Wasson testifies before Congress

Appalachian Voice’s Director of Programs Matt Wasson testifies before Congress about the burden of mountaintop removal coal mining on Appalachian communities

Last month, our Director of Programs Matt Wasson got the chance to tell a rapt audience in Washington, D.C., that the emperor has no clothes. The audience was the U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, the reporters in the room, and anyone who happened to be watching on CSPAN.

The majority members of the committee had called the hearing in an attempt to portray federal environmental protections as overly burdensome and to trumpet state efforts to “streamline” them. As Matt described in his testimony, however, the facts for the people living in the Appalachian counties most heavily impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining under the ostensibly watchful eye of state agencies are these:

  • They are 50% more likely to die from cancer than others in Appalachia
  • Their children are 42% more likely to be born with birth defects
  • They have a life expectancy far below the national average and comparable to those in El Salvador and Vietnam.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, picking up on Matt’s revelations, noted the similarly atrocious handling by North Carolina officials — in the absence of any federal rules on coal ash — of the catastrophic Duke Energy coal ash spill in February. In the end, the hearing turned into an indictment of the fallacy that states can be counted on to defend their citizens against the profit-driven vagaries of the coal industry and energy giants like Duke.

And while Matt had a rare opportunity to provide a reality check in the ceremonial milieu of a congressional hearing room, it’s the people living in places like Wise County, Va., Pike County, Ky., and Stokes County, N.C. (the site of Duke’s largest coal ash pond), who know this reality better than anyone. It’s their voices, their courage and their persistence — in combination with technical experts like Matt speaking truth to power — that will ultimately bring about real change in their communities.

Carl Shoupe: Seeing through the “War on Coal” smokescreen

Thursday, August 21st, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Carl Shoupe, the author of this piece, which originally appeared on The Hill, is an active member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and lives in Harlan County, Ky. We’re sharing Carl’s thoughts here with his permission.

Carl Shoupe speaks at a KFTC press conference held as a ” Declaration of Grievances” towards the inaction of the Kentucky state legislature. Photo from Flickr.com.

As a retired coal miner, the son of a coal miner, and the father of a coal miner, I’m curious about Congress’ recent attacks on the EPA and claims of a “war on coal.” These claims are nothing but a distraction from the real needs of coalfield communities.

I live in Harlan County, Kentucky in the very heart of the Appalachian coalfields, and with the exception of a couple years in Vietnam as a United States Marine, I have lived here all my life.

I’m working every day – along with thousands of other Kentuckians – to build a better future here in Eastern Kentucky and across Appalachia so that my grandchildren and their children can make a life here. We believe we can have a bright future here with more and better jobs, safe and affordable energy, healthy communities, and opportunities for our kids.

Of course, we know it won’t be easy. It will take hard work, creativity, and investment in new ideas and real solutions. More than anything, it will require honest leadership with vision and courage.

That’s why this Congress’ misguided attacks are such a disappointment. The war on coal is nothing more than a smokescreen designed to keep us from seeing the true challenges and real opportunities in communities like mine.

You see, the coal industry has been leaving Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky for decades. In 1980 there were more than 34,000 coal miners working in Eastern Kentucky. By 1990, that number was down to 25,000 despite a production peak. Fewer than 8,000 jobs remain today — the lowest since 1927 — and continue to fall.

For years, industry analysts, coal company executives, and energy agencies warned that our best and easiest coal has been mined, that transportation costs have been rising, that cleaner and cheaper alternatives to coal were on the rise.

It has been clear that we needed to be building a new economy here in the coalfields for generations, yet our political leaders have done little or nothing to help us prepare for the inevitable transition.

If Congress really wants to help the coal miner, there are several ways to start. First, Congress should pass the mine safety reforms we’ve been waiting for since the Upper Big Branch explosion killed 29 fellow miners in 2010. Congress should help ensure coal miners don’t get black lung – a vicious and entirely preventable workplace disease that is increasing instead of disappearing. Congress should also make sure that a miner’s hard earned pension is secure, not stolen by some corporate shell game.

Congress should remember that every coal miner is more than just his job. He – or she – is also a son or daughter, a parent, a spouse. When he’s not underground 60 or 70 hours a week, he is a member of his church, his local PTA or volunteer fire department; he might be a Little League coach.

If Congress really cares about coal miners and coal families, then it should work to give them a future.

For instance, Congress could generate thousands of new jobs in the coalfields by creating a revolving fund for energy efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses, and pass the Shaheen-Portman bill to create thousands of energy efficiency jobs.

We like to say that if you give a coal miner a coat hanger and some electrical tape, he can fix anything. Congress could release the millions of dollars sitting in the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund and employ thousands of laid-off coal miners to restore our land, forests, and water. Congress could locate one of those fancy new manufacturing innovation centers the president talks about right here in the mountains.

Instead of raging about a made-up war on coal and how to protect coal corporations, Congress should take a closer look at how to really support coal communities.

Over the past century, Harlan County has shipped over one billion tons of coal to steel mills and power plants across this country. In a district represented by some of the most powerful politicians in Washington D.C., one-third of our children live in poverty and we rank 435th in combined quality of life indicators.

It’s time to try something new. We can have a bright future here in the coalfields of Kentucky and Appalachia. Our people are hungry for honest and courageous leaders who will help us build it.

After last-minute compromise, N.C. legislature passes coal ash bill

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 - posted by brian
Duke Energy's retired Dan River coal plant, where a massive coal ash spill in February spurred legislative action.

Duke Energy’s retired Dan River coal plant, where a massive coal ash spill in February spurred legislative action.

However dysfunctional, the North Carolina General Assembly always seems to come together in the end.

On Wednesday afternoon, the N.C. House voted 83 – 14 in favor of a compromise bill on what to do about the state’s coal ash problem. A few hours later, the Senate followed suit. The bill will now go to the governor.

Here’s what Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams said about the bill:

“A far cry from the historic bill lawmakers have touted, this plan chooses just four communities out of 14 across the state to be cleaned up in this decade. The others, our lawmakers have decided, will have to wait for a commission of political appointees to decide their fate.”

We’ll skip the self-congratulatory cheerleading coming out of Raleigh and share more of the finer details in the days and weeks ahead. But suffice it to say, by overlooking the present threats that most of the coal ash sites in the state pose, the final bill comes nowhere close to fulfilling lawmakers’ promises to protect North Carolina’s communities in the wake of the Dan River spill.

Learn more about the bill here.

It’s still happening …

Friday, August 15th, 2014 - posted by thom
Click to enlarge. Photo by Lynn Willis; Flight by Southwings

Click to enlarge. Photo by Lynn Willis; Flight by Southwings

Surface coal mining has been going on in Appalachia for a long time. If you live in the part of central Appalachia that produces coal, it probably feels like it’s been going on forever. The regulations have been modified a few times, the markets have had their ups and downs, and some of the names of the coal companies are different than they used to be.

Aside from that, not much has changed.

In 2009, there was a great deal of excitement about early conversations with Obama administration officials. The previous eight years had been a nightmare for Appalachian community groups fighting against mountaintop removal coal mining. Finally, there were people in the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior who seemed eager to hear from communities and make some real changes. Yet, five years later, mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening in Appalachia.

A few weeks ago, Southwings took my colleague Amy Adams and photographer Lynn Willis on a flight over mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia. The images are hard to look at, not because they show anything new, but precisely because they are more of the same. Mountains continue to be deforested, blasted apart, and dumped into nearby valleys and streams.

I always find it interesting to hear from folks in our movement describe what it was that motivated them to become active in fighting against mountaintop removal mining. There are all sort of answers, including: “It was happening in my backyard,” and “I heard a presentation from impacted Appalachian residents.” For me, it was a mix of things, starting with meeting some residents of eastern Kentucky.

This image, however, is what made it all click in my mind.
5000sq miles of WV

That’s a Google Earth satellite image of approximately 5,000 square miles of central Appalachia (roughly the size of Connecticut). Notice those grey splotches. Those pock marks. Those coal tattoos. Each of those giant marks on the earth is a mountaintop removal coal mine.

The scale and pervasiveness of the destruction is almost impossible to comprehend. The satellite image is evidence of an ongoing crime against nature that regulators and policy makers are astonishingly allowing to continue.

Understanding the extent of the mining is an important step to understanding the connection between mining pollution and the Appalachian health crisis occurring across 50 counties. Blowing up more than 500 mountains, burying more than 2,000 miles of streams, and desecrating over 1 million acres of land cannot be done without polluting the air and water necessary to human health. That’s why there’s a close link between mountaintop removal mining and elevated rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and birth defects throughout the entire region.

Yet, mountaintop removal is still happening.

Appalachians are not going to give up, and neither is Appalachian Voices. Federal agencies can still take major steps to ending mountaintop removal, and we all need to do what we can to make sure they do.

>> Learn more about mountaintop removal mining.

Aug./Sept. issue of The Appalachian Voice released!

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis
Read the latest issue of The Appalachian Voice here.

Read the latest issue of The Appalachian Voice here.

I joined The Appalachian Voice crew at the beginning of June for a summer internship, and the staff immediately had me out getting my feet wet — literally and figuratively. I hopped on the issue just in time to start work on a piece exploring mountain bogs for our Naturalist Notebook page, so dipping my toes into journalism meant getting my boots muddy in some of Appalachia’s most unique ecosystems.

I wasn’t the only young-gun working on this issue, though. In it you’ll also hear from my fellow intern Carvan Craft about ways in which colleges and students across Appalachia are pushing toward environmental sustainability through campus projects and initiatives such as fossil fuel divestment, renewable energy and friendly competitions.

Writer Rachel Ellen Simon also focuses on educational institutions in her profiles of five colleges in Appalachia and the smart ways they save energy.

Interns at the New Beginnings camp meet in the afternoons to plan for upcoming days and discuss how to resolve conflicts between campers. Photo by Kimber Ray

Interns at the New Beginnings camp meet in the afternoons to plan for upcoming days and discuss how to resolve conflicts between campers. Photo by Kimber Ray

The New Opportunity School for Women and the High Rocks Academy for Girls, however, demonstrate that education is never restricted to the walls of the university. Writer Kimber Ray showcases the numerous ways in which these organizations are revealing educational and economic opportunity for females in rural Appalachia through innovative academic courses, summer camps and training programs.

Also in this issue, Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, breaks down the recently-published U.S. Geological Survey study on lower fish populations in streams near mountaintop removal mines. Additionally, Eric Chance, water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices, explains selenium pollution and why it is so harmful for our streams, and writer Molly Moore tackles fracking and points to ways in which it is and is not being regulated.

Don’t forget our regular features! Hiking the Highlands presents Camp Creek in West Virginia, a wonderful park to explore in late summer. This issue’s politics page covers states’ reactions to the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed carbon emissions rule and provides a summary of how our representatives voted on environmental issues in the 113th Congress. The Energy Report page covers some hopeful news of the court ruling that favored the EPA on mountaintop removal and the local opposition to a West Virginia surface mine near a state forest. It also covers the unfortunate updates to Kentucky’s coal general permit processes, and the N.C. coal ash bill that is still pending due to the inability of the Senate and House to find a compromise.

Regular readers of our online edition might notice a new format, designed to make years’ worth of quality content more accessible than ever. Read the online version here! Or, if you prefer to read it in print, round off the summer by picking up a copy of The Appalachian Voice from a newsstand near you, or join Appalachian Voices to receive a one-year subscription in your mailbox.

Questions or comments? Email voice@appvoices.org, or submit a letter to the editor!

Mountaintop removal is the 800-pound gorilla at the SOAR Health Impact Series

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

If the SOAR initiative is to go beyond political rhetoric, Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear must take public concerns about mountaintop removal’s health impacts seriously.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

I attended the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit held in Pikeville, Ky., last December. Following Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s Appalachia’s Bright Future economic development meeting, I was excited at the prospects such a large summit might generate.

As a joint effort between U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, it was clear that SOAR had the power to make real change in eastern Kentucky, but only if those involved had the will.

The results of SOAR following the summit have been mixed so far. Several people have pointed out issues with the process — specifically, the stakeholders most involved in SOAR may not accurately represent the needs and concerns of eastern Kentuckians. Since the summit, my hope for the outcomes of SOAR have waned. But when I learned that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, would be visiting eastern Kentucky as part of the SOAR Health Impact Series, I saw an opportunity for the voices of residents from coal-impacted communities in eastern Kentucky counties to be heard.

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

Over the past several years, more than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published linking a range of health problems including above-average cancer and birth defect rates to the presence of mountaintop removal coal mining. Yet just last month, the Obama administration pulled funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for research underway on air pollution from mountaintop removal and its link to respiratory issues. The need for a serious effort to identify and address health issues related to mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia has never been more clear. Despite this, I was not optimistic that Dr. Frieden and Rep. Rogers would address this need during their visit.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Prior to the CDC visit, the SOAR health committee held 11 listening sessions across eastern Kentucky from April through July. Each of the sessions drew an average of more than 20 participants. Although SOAR has thus far limited the role of key community members in leadership positions, the health committee has provided a forum for some community involvement.

The CDC meetings consisted of four sessions — two shorter evening sessions in Somerset and Paintsville, and two longer daytime sessions in Hazard and Morehead. I attended the daytime session in Hazard last Tuesday, where there was standing room only. Several individuals spoke, including Rep. Rogers and several doctors from eastern Kentucky.

As the morning went on, I began to lose hope that environmental concerns would be brought up. Then, Dr. Nikki Stone, the health committee chair and event moderator, spoke about the issues that came up during the listening sessions. She began listing the top 10 concerns that had come up throughout the listening sessions, and much to my surprise, environmental impacts, including air and water pollution from mountaintop removal mines, was the top concern resulting from the listening sessions, tied with a desire for coordinate health programs in public schools.

To be honest, I was stunned. I was so sure that the topic would be avoided at a meeting that attracted so much attention. Suddenly, I was hopeful that the health impacts of mountaintop removal would receive some real attention from those that have the power to address the issue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meeting quickly turned back to lengthy speeches about taking personal responsibility for one’s own health and an announcement of federal funding for the Appalachian Cancer Patient Navigation Project. The talks left me with the distinct impression that those speaking would rather focus on dealing with the prevalence of disease, rather than preventing it.

The Health Impact Series did not improve later that evening in Paintsville. The closest mention of environmental impacts on health came from Rep. Rogers, who referred to dirty streams but then went on to blame water quality degradation on people dumping and straight piping waste into streams. It seemed once again that it was easier to blame eastern Kentuckians, rather than the industry they have been beholden to for generations.

The Opportunity Ahead

There was a strong press presence at both meetings, which may have salvaged some chance of addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, when “asked whether he would support having the CDC study the public health effects of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, Frieden said the agency ‘only goes where it’s invited.’” Following the disappointing Paintsville meeting, I felt like I had one last opportunity to make the most of the meetings and approached Dr. Frieden fully expecting to be turned away. Instead, he listened carefully for a moment and then directed me to his assistant. I spoke with several CDC employees and was disappointed to find that they were unaware of the multitude of health studies linking health problems to mountaintop removal. They did, however, encourage me to contact them directly for follow up on the issue.

Moving forward, Appalachian Voices and our allies intend to follow up with the CDC, to be sure that they are fully aware of the current research that indicates quite clearly that one of the major health issues we should be concerned about in Central Appalachia is mountaintop removal coal mining. We will be sure that the CDC knows that, at least when it comes to the citizens of eastern Kentucky, the CDC is invited to investigate this pressing issue. We will also be sure that the SOAR Health Committee acts upon its finding that citizens are most concerned about environmental impacts on health, because, as the Herald-Leader stated, “when a congressman and governor invite people to ‘listening sessions,’ there’s an obligation to take what they say seriously.”

Expecting Justice: The backward priorities of a billionaire coal baron

Thursday, August 7th, 2014 - posted by brian

If spending $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is paying your debts.

One of these things is not like the other, but they're all owned by Jim Justice. Premium Coal's Zeb Mountain (top) and Windrock Mountain mines in Tennessee, and the Greenbrier's new training complex. Photos from tnleaf.org and Facebook.

One of these things is not like the other, but they’re all owned by Jim Justice. Premium Coal’s Zeb Mountain (top) and Windrock Mountain mines in Tennessee, and the Greenbrier’s new training complex. Photos from tnleaf.org and Facebook.

On July 25, as opponents of mountaintop removal celebrated an order that halted three companies’ surface mining operations in Tennessee, New Orleans Saints fans flocked to the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the NFL football team began training camp at a brand new $30 million facility.

At the center of both stories is Jim Justice, a billionaire West Virginia native who in recent years cut his coal losses by investing heavily in resort properties like the Greenbrier.

The Sierra Club and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment shared the news that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued 39 cessation orders against National Coal, Premium Coal and S&H Mining, each owned by Justice, for failing to report water monitoring data and meet mine reclamation requirements.

In fact, coal mines owned by Justice in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have racked up more than 250 violations, with unpaid penalties of about $2 million.

“I guess I just screwed up,” Justice said to the Roanoke Times in July about his subsidiaries’ transgressions. “I mean, we’re not a public company … The majority of this is all paperwork, and I’m cleaning it up.”

Purchased Power

Justice is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion. Forbes magazine puts him at number 292 on a list of wealthiest Americans and estimates that his personal wealth has grown by $500 million in the last year.

In some circles, he is revered for rescuing West Virginia’s historic Greenbrier Resort from bankruptcy in 2009. And even as violations against Justice-owned operations pile up, West Virginia’s lone billionaire is helping his state through troubled times.

“Sure, some have raised questions about some of Justice’s companies’ practices, late payments, regulatory fines and the like,” a July editorial in the Charleston Daily Mail postured in guarded praise. “Yet, while many talk of diversifying the state’s economy in the face of market and regulatory setbacks for the coal industry, Jim Justice and company are doing something about it.”

Photo from the Justice to Justice campaign's Facebook page.

Photo from the Justice to Justice campaign’s Facebook page.

Some folks in Kentucky feel differently, and understandably so — nearly half of the 266 violations Justice faces resulted from problems at mines in that state’s eastern counties.

Along with violations for failing to pay fines or breaking promises after previous enforcement actions, the charges in Kentucky stem from companies failing to submit water monitoring reports and failing to meet reclamation requirements. The problem has gotten so bad that some states are considering bond forfeiture, a last resort that could push the costs of proper reclamation off on the communities Justice’s companies have already put in harm’s way.

It’s not the first time his companies’ poor regulatory records have hurt their ability to do business. Outstanding violations in Virginia led to a massive victory for opponents of mountaintop removal last year when the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a permit for Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. to strip-mine Ison Rock Ridge in Wise County.

But the recent cessation order in Tennessee represents the largest action to date taken against Justice’s companies. Unlike all the other states where his operations face violations and fines, Tennessee’s mining regulatory program is handled by the federal government.

Before the cessation orders were issued, the federal Office of Surface Mining held public hearings in Anderson County, Tenn., to address Premium Coal’s failure to meet reclamation requirements at two mine sites. Premium Coal requested the orders be dropped because the crew they hired had planted trees upside down with the roots sticking up.

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to raise awareness about the dismal regulatory records and outstanding debts of Justice-owned coal companies. Photo from justicetojustice.org

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign to raise awareness about the dismal regulatory records and outstanding debts of Justice-owned coal companies. Photo from justicetojustice.com.

“You’d think a coal billionaire could hire firms that can plant a tree the right way around. Sadly, Premium Coal’s reasoning for not meeting permit requirements was simply that,” said Sierra Club Organizer Bonnie Swinford in a press release. “Justice and his firms have a legal responsibility to ensure adequate reclamation of strip-mined land in our state — and upside-down trees don’t cut it.”

Add it all up, and it’s no wonder the Southwest Virgnia-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to call on the mogul to use his power to diversify Appalachia’s economy and put an end to mountaintop removal. In early July, SAMS members marched outside the Greenbrier and the towns of White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg, W.Va., holding signs with messages such as “You got rich, we got sick,” “Employ local people in reclamation,” and “Hey Jim Justice, be a good neighbor to ALL of Appalachia.”

According to the Justice to Justice website, many tourists and even local residents had no idea that the Greenbrier patriarch’s fortune had been built in part “on the backs of blasted mountains and abandoned communities.”

Courting the Saints

Sadly, media coverage of Justice’s latest major investment has obscured everything mentioned so far in this post. A USA Today story about the new facility built for the New Orleans Saints praised a genial, sports-loving Justice, calling him a “refreshingly grounded billionaire.” Justice was proud to share the amount he spent to see the Saints come to the Greenbrier.

“This is on me — I spent $30 million of my own money,” Justice told USA Today. “The Saints are paying for their rooms and their meals. Basically, that’s it. The Saints didn’t put money in this deal.”

The facility, which has variously been described as “posh,” “lavish,” and “state-of-the-art,” was built in about 100 days. You can watch the video at right from the Charleston Daily Mail’s YouTube account for a look inside.

“It’s unbelievable when you think about it,” Justice told reporters gathered in the locker room. “This is, gosh, I’m trying to think, a little over 90 days in the doing, and with a whole lot of earth-moving, it had to be done before that.”

Yes, it is unbelievable, and exceedingly hard to not just conclude that Justice sees himself as being above the law. If dropping $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is abiding by surface mining laws and properly reclaiming mines — trees planted root-side down and all.

Justice says the demands of his critics, who he calls “anti-mining activists,” are unrealistic. But considering the circumstances, a regional movement calling on his companies to clean up their mess, pay off their debts and stop poisoning water is not only realistic, it’s unavoidable. Justice practically created it. To do right by Appalachia, he should meet those demands and then some. And he could start by responding to the open letter and request for a meeting the Justice to Justice campaign sent him months ago.

Back at the Greenbrier, likely in a dining room every bit as lavish as the new sports complex, Saints’ Coach Sean Payton and Justice had dinner together the night before training camp started. At one point, according to USA Today, Payton told Justice, “You exceeded expectations.”

Given the same chance, someone from Central Appalachia expecting justice — whether an out-of-work miner, a contractor waiting to be paid, a fed up environmental regulator or a mother concerned about the poorly reclaimed mine looming over her community — might all say the opposite: “Not even close.”

Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment and Coal River Mountain Watch recently signed on to Justice to Justice campaign. Learn more here and by liking the campaign’s Facebook page.

An Appalachian mother finds inspiration, and inspires

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Rusti Mullins, a mother of two and wife of a former Va. coal miner, reflects on her summer traveling with her family on the Breaking Clean Tour.

mullinsfamily

In order to share our story while bringing attention to what is happening in Appalachia, our family traveled across 15 states on what we have named the Breaking Clean Tour.

Looking back over the course of this tour, there are many things we have learned as students, as individuals, as activists, and most importantly as a family. We made several stops where we shared our story of living in the mountains, dealing with the impacts of mountaintop removal, and choosing to take a chance and make a change for the better.

We spoke to amazing people who are doing amazing things in their own areas, like people with Heartwood, Prairie Rivers Network, Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network, Hands-on Nashville, Gaining Ground Sustainable Institute, the Harvey Broome Group Sierra Club, Coalition for Coalfield Justice, Boston Climate Action Network, the Buzzards Bay Coalition, and the members of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh. These people who not only encouraged us to continue what we have been doing, but inspired us to push further and begin thinking about the next step.

You may ask, what good does our traveling around speaking to small groups of people do? Speaking to any size group will always accomplish something even if it is only inspiring those who are already fighting for a better future to continue with their own struggle. Inspiration is something we all can use, especially if it is inspiration to change things for a brighter and cleaner future.

Several people told us that we were an inspiration to them personally. At one of our first presentations, I overheard a woman talking about how she had attended some other presentation and how she was disappointed in it because of it being so boring. She was prepared for our presentation to be more of the same. After we finished, tearfully she told us that we surprised her with our story, that it was a very powerful one. Many people throughout our tour told us how powerful our story was. We were able to put a face to a problem that affects more than only those individuals living in the mountains. Everyone was grateful for our coming and sharing.

This tour was not only about giving presentations and sharing our story. we also set out to learn what other communities were doing to be more sustainable. We found people who were homesteading and farming, working hard to bring back the family farms. There were people working with schools, teaching children about food–everything from where their food comes from to how to grow their own. We learned about schools that are dedicated to teaching children not only their three R’s, but also what is truly important in life. Other people were teaching children about the importance of our water and how we need to work together to clean up the messes we, as humans, have made.

Speaking of children, our children, Daniel, 12, and Alexandria, 9, were one aspect of the tour that people really appreciated. They especially liked the kids’ involvement in the presentation. Several people told us how proud they were to see us traveling with our kids and speaking out. One gentleman told me that he was tickled to see the kids getting involved and learning to speak out. He stated to me that it was because of and for the children that we should all work towards a better future. The kids also enjoyed themselves.

We each have our own favorite part of the tour. Alex really had a lot of fun working at the Hands-On Nashville Urban Farm. We stopped there on our way to Mississippi and put in a few hours of volunteer work. Daniel thought it was neat that an old plantation, which is now the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, Mississippi, that was once the home of slaves is now a nature preserve. Even when they began counting down the days until our return home, the kids still managed to find ways to enjoy each day and each stop.

Feedback is important when trying to talk to people about something as significant as the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. We received a lot of positive feedback throughout our tour, particularly from people who were in attendance at our presentations. Not all feedback everywhere can be good though. Some of the comments on the Internet pertaining to our tour were not so good. Some people refused to understand what we were doing or why we continued to speak out. We had to do our best to not let what those few people thought bring us down, and it wasn’t easy. There were times we wondered why we were even doing it, but then someone would hear our story, tell us how it has inspired them, and we would feel renewed in our endeavor.

We all must face the voices of the naysayers and let them believe what they will while we continue to walk the path we have chosen, especially when that path is one meant to help others.

Going into this tour, we did not know what to expect. In the end, we received a great bounty of knowledge and experience. We do thank everyone who helped to make this tour happen. We may not have reached the number of people we originally hoped for, but we know we reached a lot of people working hard toward a better future. Perhaps maybe through those people, our story will reach others and in turn reach more than only those we spoke to. The number of people we reached does not decide the success or failure of this tour, though. It was a success because people were open to hearing our Appalachian story. It is not only our story, but everyone’s story, which must be shared. Otherwise, what are we fighting for?

An activist is born

Monday, August 4th, 2014 - posted by Marissa Wheeler
Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Fend, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Feng, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Last Tuesday, on the first day of the carbon rule hearings at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., I stepped off the Metro full of anticipation for my first-ever public rally for any cause, let alone an environmental one.

I arrived at the Federal Triangle station slightly overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings but, following the sounds of live music to the front of the building, I knew upon first glance that I had found my destination.

On the wide semi-circular lawn, children ran with toy replicas of wind turbines. People of many ethnicities and a range of ages stood chatting and putting the finishing touches on colorful posters. A woman and a young musician led a call-and-response demanding “Clean Energy Now.” And on the street, volunteers handed out Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

I accepted a Moms Clean Air Force sticker from a helpful volunteer and hunted for more free items to show my support. Meanwhile, inside EPA headquarters, Hannah Wiegard and Jeff Feng from Appalachian Voices presented their testimony on the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and the need to take swift action to combat climate change.

Proudly sporting my “I Love Mountains” button, I was ready to hobnob with other Americans advocating for clean energy and climate action including lawyers, career environmental advocates, interns like me, and citizens who traveled great distances to appear before the EPA and raise their voices in support of cutting carbon pollution.

These are the people I surround myself with at home and at school, but I’ve often felt like somewhat of an imposter in their presence. I can’t talk knowledgeably about “carbon capture and sequestration” like they can. I waste far too much water, paper, gas, food and electricity. And this was my first-ever environmental rally. In these kinds of situations, my insecurities tend to build inside me like guilt and create a sense of otherness in my mind between myself and the people I admire and want to emulate.

But that morning, I felt immediately welcomed into the fold because just being there meant that I was contributing to the cause. Building grassroots support and demonstrating the power of people mark the beginnings of social and legislative change, as rally speakers such as Green Latino President Mark Magaña and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus impressed upon the crowd.

For me, catching the spirit and optimism of the rally has given greater clarity to both a collective vision of a clean energy future and what I can do as an individual to help us get there. It’s one thing to wear the pins and stickers; it’s another thing to feel empowered by your peers to take action and work toward a common goal. This sense of belonging is the most valuable thing I’ll take with me from the rally. The free sunglasses are pretty cool, too.

Science vs. Mining

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 - posted by eric

Fish deformed by selenium pollution

It’s no surprise to folks in coal-impacted communities that surface mining is bad for water quality. Orange streams, devoid of life, litter the landscape. But it would seem to most that this is contrary to many environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Unfortunately these laws are filled with loopholes, and the agencies tasked with enforcing them are usually underfunded and understaffed.

There have been numerous studies over the years showing surface mining’s detrimental effects on the health of nearby people and streams. There are two recent notable studies from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) alone. The first was aimed at linking air pollution from mountaintop removal mines to the health problems of nearby residents. Unfortunately, this study will not be completed because its funding has been cut. Earlier this month USGS was able to complete and publish a report that showed streams below mountaintop removal mines have two-thirds fewer fish than those in unpolluted streams. The study also found that selenium pollution is linked to declines in fish populations.

Appalachian Voices has been working to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry from opening new loopholes in our environmental laws that would make it easier to poison streams. Along with a number of our supporters and partner organizations, we recently submitted comments to the EPA on their newly proposed standards for selenium.

Selenium is a mineral commonly discharged from coal mines that is extremely toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. It is also very expensive to remove from water so there have been a number of efforts by the coal industry to get agencies to make the standards more lax. This newly proposed EPA standard will make citizen enforcement harder, and will make it easier for companies to get away with discharging toxic levels of selenium.

The new standards are slightly weaker than the selenium standards EPA tried, but failed, to adopt in 2004. A large number of scientists and even other federal agencies came out in opposition to those standards because they were too weak. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, told the EPA that “Based on a large body of scientific evidence, the Service believes these criterion values will not protect federally listed fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, the service believes these values are not even sufficient to protect the aquatic life for which the criteria were developed.”

>> See our comments here and here
>> Look through all the comments here