Taking Mountaintop Removal to the United Nations

Ask any one of the 10 delegates of seven organizations representing the voices of the dispossessed in Appalachia why they’re going to the United Nations on May 6-12, and they’ll all tell you the same thing.

To fight for their human rights. The coalition is collectively organizing a side event at an upcoming U.N. meeting about their experience with the effects of mountaintop removal and valley fill. What do they hope to accomplish?

Clean air, clean land, and clean water in coal country.

That’s what they’ll be telling the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Sustainable Development, whose annual meeting that week in May focuses on four categories of vital interest in the world: energy for sustainable development; industrial development; air pollution and atmospheric concerns; and global climate change.

“So, mountaintop removal would be relevant,” said Mary Pat Silveria of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development.

“We want to use this as a forum to get the word out that there’s no such thing as clean coal,” said Steve Owens, president of Appalachian Coalition based in Boone, NC, a regional affiliate of the Citizens Network for Sustainable Development headquartered in Maryland. “The [Commission] wants to promote renewable energy options, including conservation, wind energy, microhydro power, solar energy, and possibly biofuels such as ethanol,” he said. “That’s what our delegation is trying to tell our country and the world, and also that they will join with other groups in the world for this purpose.”

The delegation is aligned internationally with the Northern Alliance for Sustainability in Amsterdam. Together, they are planning a two-hour event including a panel discussion with people from different regions of the world and a short documentary showing “the devastating effect of mountaintop removal,” Owens said. The U.N.
Commission has not assigned them a day or location yet, he said.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without sacrificing the needs of the future, Silveria said. “We look at social, economic, and environmental impacts in total” rather than separate from one another, she added.

It’s a popular concept in many parts of the world, including England, where sustainable development has been a special interest of Prince Charles’ for a long time.

Other events surrounding the main meeting include caucuses held by other special interest groups as well as the NGO Steering Committee to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. The delegation from Appalachia will connect with that caucus in particular, Owens said, to “tie in the idea of using less energy.” A plan the collective has put together is under consideration by the U.N. for presentation next year at this conference, he said.

This year the group is attempting only to effect language that will appear in policy papers next year concerning energy and within that, mountaintop removal, Owens said..

“We want the United Nations to know what is happening to the people that Americans consider sacrifice people, throw away people. We are no longer willing to be a sacrifice. That’s why we think it’s important to go,” said Judy Bonds on behalf of Coal River Mountain Watch of Raleigh County, W.Va.

“America is supposed to be the cheerleader for human rights. And they’re committing cultural genocide in Appalachia, and they don’t want to face up to what they’re doing. So we thought we’d take our fight to the United Nations and see what they have to say about it. We want to expose America’s dirty secret.”

And they want to serve and protect the wildlife living on the mountains, not chase them away. They also want the children in the valleys to be able to go to school wearing clothes that don’t come out of the wash tainted with extra doses of iron, copper, aluminum, arsenic, barium, sulfites and acid.

Donetta Blankenship of Rawl, W.Va., said she’s going because she doesn’t want to see peroxide bubble up when she puts it on wet clothes just out of the wash. “You know, you think clothes are clean when you wash them. But, there’s all kinds of bacteria on the wash. We have to bathe in that water,” she said.

Blankenship, who lives near a coal mining operation, thinks her liver damage is attributable to the cumulative effects of extra doses of heavy metals found in her water well through testing. She also thinks its why her son needs to use an inhaler twice a day when he’s at home, but not when he goes to stay with his grandparents fifteen minutes away in Williamson, W.Va. She also thinks it’s why her daughter has constant intestinal and stomach upset when she’s at home, but not when she’s at her grandparents’.

And her solid silver wedding ring turns black when she does the dishes, then goes back to normal after a while. And paintings in her bathroom are turning black from the water vapors, she said.

And that’s just the short of it.

Additional Perspectives on MTR

EPA web site “[D]ries up an average of 100 wells a year and contaminates water in others. …[C]ontaminate[s] streams with sediment from the mines. … In mountaintop removal areas, the native plants are being destroyed, and the wildlife chased away.”

Coal Operators and Associates, National Mining Association, and state coal associations favor mountaintop removal in its current form. They interpret the EPA’s June 2003 Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement as showing that “mountaintop removal mining has minimal individual and cumulative effects on the environment.”

United Mine Workers union is not in favor of a complete ban on mountaintop removal mining. “Property owners should have the right to do whatever they want with their land,” said Phil Smith, UMWA director of communication . People who own property surrounding mountaintop removal mining should be protected from the effects of blasting and trucks going up and down the mountains. If homes are damaged as a result of blasting, fair market compensation should be given for that. The land should be returned to its original contours, and the original topsoil replaced to begin to return some type of flora that was there originally.” Tourism jobs pay $9/hour at best. Mining pays $20-$25/hour. “The states must enforce the laws, but they aren’t.”


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