For most of the past two years Appalachian Voices has been putting tremendous effort into building a base of citizen activists to advance the passage of the “Clean Water Protection Act” (HR 2719) in the United States House of Representatives. The Clean Water Protection Act would make it illegal to dump the waste material created by mountaintop removal coal mining into any body of water.
This effort culminated on September 9 – 13 of this year when 70 citizen lobbyists from 13 states descended on Washington, DC, to make their voices heard in the halls of Congress.
Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington began on Saturday evening, September 9 at the offices of the Wilderness Society for a reception that brought together mountaintop removal volunteers and our colleagues who are fighting for wilderness protection for our precious public lands. The wilderness advocates were brought to Washington by our friends at The Alaska Wilderness League and Campaign for America’s Wilderness.
Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington started in earnest with a full day of training on Sunday, September 10, 2006. Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth started the day with the history of mountaintop removal coal mining. . Melinda Pierce, Director of National Campaigns for the Sierra Club, gave a rousing talk about the protocols of successful lobbying for citizen lobbyists. If that weren’t enough, Eric Gordon, legislative director for Representative Frank Pallone, lead sponsor of the Clean Water Protection Act, gave us an insight into what a day in the life of a congressional staff person is like.
Participants were honored by the presence of Luci Beach, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee of Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories of Canada. The Gwich’in Steering Committee has been instrumental in the battle to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Luci spoke to the group about conducting our campaign “in a good way.
Monday was the day that the participants hit the hill – Capitol Hill that is, and it seemed like everywhere you went there were “Stop Mountaintop Removal” buttons attached to folks who clearly were on a mission. During the three days of citizen lobbying, volunteers made over 80 visits to congressional offices, and to date that has resulted in 7 new Members of Congress signing on as cosponsors of the Clean Water Protection Act.
Two events shared the award for being the most exciting times of the week.
The first was on Monday night at the Capitol City Brewing Company. As a roomful of somewhat rowdy and very well-dressed hillbillies celebrated the first-ever day of lobbying for the first-ever Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington, the Appalachian Voices staff started receiving calls on our cell phones. The calls were from our very own Austin Hall, our field organizer and the support person on the road for the entirety of Ed Wiley’s walk to Washington – one of many who helped make Ed’s walk possible, including the good people at Pennies of Promise, Coal River Mountain Watch, and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
On August 2, West Virginia grandfather Ed Wiley had set out from Charleston, West Virginia on a 455-mile walk to seek help for the children of Marsh Fork Elementary School, located 150 feet from a coal preparation plant and 400 feet below a leaking dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. Now Austin and Ed were 7 miles from the Capitol, and they were arriving that night, come hell or high water. They would complete the symbolic end of the walk on the appointed day, Wednesday, but now that we were in their sights, they weren’t stopping.
When Ed and Austin entered the Capitol City Brewing Company at 10:30pm on that Monday night, a welcoming roar went up from the crowd the likes of which all those present are not likely to experience again. As Ed and Austin walked, somewhat dazed, into the embracing arms of old and new friends, our conservation director MattWasson remarked, “That was a deathbed moment.” Indeed – the overwhelming emotions of that moment will be with many of us to the very end.
The second was at the press conference held on the terrace of the Cannon House Office Building right across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday. The plan was that Ed Wiley and his “Pennies of Promise” walk was to formally end at the press conference. Everything came off right on schedule. Ed Wiley arrived at the appointed hour, fresh from a meeting with West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving US Senator in American history.
Ed reported that the meeting was a very powerful experience for both men, and he is hopeful that Byrd will do something about the school. Senator Byrd released this very touching statement that holds within it great hope for Ed, Debbie, and the children at Marsh Fork Elementary:
“I admire the determination and dedication that Ed and Debbie Wiley have shown. The Bible teaches that if we have faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. I believe that the Wileys have that faith.”
Ed arrived at the Cannon terrace along with a crowd of supporters, and was immediately surrounded by reporters. Ed spoke passionately about his quest to provide a safe school for his little granddaughter. He was followed by Representative Frank Pallone, who spoke about the Clean Water Protection Act and how it related to Ed’s effort. Then Appalachian Voices executive director Mary Anne Hitt ended the week’s activities and announced the launch of the new online organizing campaign, iLoveMountains.org, devoted to building support all over the nation for ending the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining (see center-spread of this issue of the Voice for the full story).
It was an incredible week that all of us who were privileged to attend will never forget.