RING OF FIRE
AIR AMERICA RADIO
ROBERT F. KENNEDY AND MARY ANN HITT
INTERVIEW MAY 27
ANCR: We’re going to take a look at how Congress is trying to ban one of the most devastating environmental practices being conducted by corporate America. Mountaintop mining where they blow up more land mass than the state of Delaware.
RFK: For many years energy companies—led by Massey Coal, Peabody Coal, and Arch Coal—have been blasting the tops off of mountains in West Virginia and in Kentucky all across Appalachia to get at the coal seams underneath. They literally blow the mountains to pieces and use giant machines called ‘drag lines,’ which are 22 stories high, to plow the rock and debris and rubble into the adjacent river valley. They bury the hollows, they bury the rivers According to the EPA, they’ve now buried 1200 miles of America’s rivers and streams This is probably the single largest environmental atrocity in the history of the United States.
RFK: Joining us now is Mary Anne Hitt of Appalachian Voices.
Appalachian Voices is one of the principal front line groups that are fighting the practice of Mountaintop Mining in West Virginia and in Kentucky. So tell us what you are doing now. You have a new line of attack which is you’re trying to pass legislation in various states forbidding the use of mountaintop mined coal.
MAH: Yes, when most people think of MTR they think of West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, and Tennessee, the coalfield states where mountains are being blown up as we talk, right at this moment, 24 hours a day 365 days a year. But there are a lot of connections from those coalfield states to the rest of the country. People in the coalfield states aren’t using all that coal. And in fact, the state that uses the most MTR coal is GA, and the state that uses the second most is NC, and today a legislator in North Carolina just introduced a bill that would ban the use of coal from mountaintop removal in NC by the coal fired power plants that are there. It’s an issue that starts in Appalachia but it’s connected to people out in the rest of the country. And obviously when coal gets burned it’s going up into out atmosphere and contributing to global warming…
RFK: Along with mercury contamination in all 50 states with our fishes. In 19 states it’s now unsafe to eat any freshwater fish in the state because of mercury coming from coal.
What was the name of the legislator who introduced the bill?
MAH: Pricey Harrison introduced the bill, called the Appalachian Mountain Prersevation Act.
RFK: What can our listeners do to support Pricey Harrison’s efforts?
MAH: Well, anyone who is in NC can call their state legislator to support the bill, and people who are in other states can start a campaign like this to try to pass a bill in their own states. If you go to our web page, iLoveMountains.org, there’s a place you can type in your zip code and you can find out if you are getting electricity from mountaintop removal. And if you are, this might be something that your state might be interested in doing.
RFK: You’ve done this extraordinary page with Google Earth.
MAH: Yes, we created a virtual online memorial to show the locations of all the 484 mountains that have been blown up by mountaintop removal, and it doesn’t just show the locations, but it actually tells the stories of the people who lived there. These are real places where people hiked and they hunted and they fished and they introduced the natural world to their children. Mountains like Zeb Mountain and Blair Mountain and Kayford Mountain. And they are gone. And when a mountain is blown up, it doesn’t ever grow back. So we’ve told the stories of these mountains and we’ve done it in Google Earth. You can also see your connection to these mines through your light switch in Google Earth, and Google saw what we had done. They thought it was very innovative and a very cutting edge use of Google Earth and Google maps to illuminate an issue that had been really hidden from people all across the country. So they actually put this layer into the actual Google Earth software. So there are a quarter of a billion people around the world who Google Earth on their computers, which is free software you can download. And if you have Google Earth on your computer there’s a global awareness layer, and it includes layers from the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund and the Holocaust Museum and it also includes a mountaintop removal layer that we created.
RFK: Actually on this Web site you can put in your zip code and you can see the mountain that was blown up to energize your house.
MAH: You can see it in Google Earth and Google Maps and you can fly right down and see it for yourself.
RFK: You mentioned Blair Mountain. Is that the same Blair Moutnain where the big strike took place back in the 1920s?
MAH: It is. The union was fighting to organize and get established against the big coal company bosses that didn’t want to see the unions get established there. It was a violent struggle and at one point the miners ended up marching to the funeral of Sid Hatfield who was a very beloved champion of their cause who had been assassinated. And in the process of the march, the military was called out on the miners, and it was the largest instance of military forces being called out on American soil since the Civil War. It was known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. It’s an important milestone of American history. Blair Mountain has been under threat for many years, and its one that people have managed to hold back because its of such historical significance, but just the fact that this very historically important mountain is slated for mountaintop removal mining gives you a sense of how insane the whole practice is and what we’re losing as we speak right here al across our great continent.
RFK: One of the things we should mention to people is that during the Piecstocine ice ages, from 12k to 20k years ago, when my house in Mt Pisgah NY, the place where it sits today was under two miles of ice, all of North America had turned in to tundra, and the forests had disappeared in every location except for one what they called Refugum, or refuge, which was the A pmts, and after the glaciers withdrew, all of North America Am was reseeded from the forest stocks in those mountains, so it’s the mother forest of all of North America, and that makes it one of the most diverse forest on the face of the earth. It’s probably the most diverse temperate rain forest on the face of the earth. But today these companies like Massey Coal, Peabody Coal and Arch coal are succeeding in doing what the glaciers couldn’t do, which is flattening the mountains and destroying these forests.
RFK: Tell us about the characters – Tell us about Don Blankenship. He’s like the antichrist of Mountaintop Removal.
MAH: one of the most striking things about Mountaintop Removal is that the politics of it are really right out of the robber baron and nobody exemplifies that better than Don Blankenship who is the CEO of Massey Energy and has made quite a name for himself over the years by being very vocal and very bold and doing whatever he needs to do to advance his agenda and agenda of MTR Massey is most notorious as far as MTR but is also not popular with the unions and is also frequently in the news for violating environmental laws. More recently he was in the news, including a full page story in the NYT, when some photos surfaced of him in Monaco, on vacation, with the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, Spike Maynard. And those photos came to light during some litigation and while the two are adamant that they were not on vacation together, they just happened to be on vacation on the French Rivierra at the same time; the photos definitely revealed a side of West Virginia politics that I don’t think people were necessarily too pleased to see.
RFK: And that’s not the only interference – Spike Maynard who is a notoriously corrupt judge – was recently forced out – B also spent millions of his own money to
MAH A couple of years ago B very publicly and very vocally put 3 million of his own money into the election campaign of Brent Benjamin, who was a state candidate for supreme court, and who was running against an incumbent who Blankenship was not a big fan of, and Benjamin ended up wining that election quite resoundingly. If you think about having $3 million to spend in a state Supreme Court justice election, it obviously gives you the ability to have quite a bully pulpit and they definitely used that to their advantage and Benjamin is now sitting on the supreme court of WV.
RFK and Blankenship have also been very generous to the Bush Administration, and they have been generous in return.
MAH: The Bush Admin has been responsible for a huge increase in MTR permits and mining – as you know, as you wrote about in your book Crimes against Nature, they appointed Steven Griles to head up the section of the Dept. of Interior that includes the office of Surface mining, and Steven Griles had been a former lobbyist with the National Mining Association, and did everything he could to pave the way for coal companies to have an eaiser time getting their MTR permits. There was a big EI statement to look at the impacts of the Clinton administration, and when it came out, the findings were all there about all the impacts and all the damage, but the recc about what to do for action were essentially to make the permitting process easier for the coal companies. And now we are, eight years later, and Steven Griles is the highest level person so far to go to jail as part of the Abram off scandal, and is serving time in prison for his involvement in that. So that’s the kind of person that the Bush Administration put in charge of overseeing our mining laws in Appalachia and we have definitely paid the price.
RFK: Another character is the assistant secretary of the MSHA David Laurenski, who initiated a series of rollbacks on mine safety regulations each time after having met with Blankenship.
MAH: You know I think that’s one of the really important points of this whole issue, that the interests of the miners, the interest of the comm. And the interests of the environment are very much the same. This is definitely not an instance of having to make a choice between jobs and the environment. By and large, enforcing the environment laws that we already have on the books is not only best for the stream and best for the forest but it’s the best thing for these workers who have to go underground into an extremely dangerous job every day, and it’s the best thing for these communities that have to deal with polluted water, they have blasting that’s cracking the foundation of their houses, they have coal dust and rock dust piling up on their kitchen tables every day and the kids have to breathe that on the playgrounds at school. So its really a matter of doing the right thing for the people and the environment and the workers and that has unfortunately not been the case for the past 8 years.
RFK: And this is just another case of the universal rule where an environmental injury is always accompanied by a subversion of our democracy.
Mary Anne Hitt is the executive director of Appalachian Voices. To find out more about her organization, visit the web site Appalachian Voices dot org or visit … what is your other website? I love mountains?
MAH: It’s iLoveMountains.org, and while people are there they can write to their member of Congress about the Clean Water Protection Act which would stop the dumping of mining waste into streams and would curtail a lot of the mountaintop removal and we hope all your listeners will do that today.
RFK: Thank you Mary Anne Hitt