Heroic Environmentalists

Ann Pickel Harris | Safety Is the Tie That Binds

By Sarah Vig

The truth will out, as Shakespeare says, and in Tennessee, Ann Harris is around to help it along.

Harris, 71, has become something of a mentor for whistleblowers and a well-known source of information and guidance on nuclear and advocacy issues since she acquired a reputation as a whistleblower at Tennessee Valley Authority in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Harris went to work for TVA as a clerk in 1982. “I got sucked in,” she explained. She didn’t know much about the nuclear industry at the time, except that they needed workers and were paying good money. “To be honest, I don’t even know if I could spell nuclear at the time.”

Within a few years, however, she was learning more and more about where corners were cut at the plant and where regulations were slack.

At first, she says, she wasn’t written off by TVA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because she thinks they saw her as only a high-school educated woman. But according to Harris, understanding the safety violations was a simple matter of recognizing the mismatch between what was written on paper and what was actually happening at the plant, and then having the courage to report it.

“I come from a long list of strong backbones,” Harris said.

Her mixture of conscience, persistence and deep commitment to protecting family have fueled her activism for nearly 40 years, first at TVA and—after a family tragedy where Harris’ son-in-law murdered her daughter—on the issue of domestic violence.

For Harris, the two issues are intertwined, the common thread being safety and protecting families. “I find that with women and safety, regardless of what your cultural origins are, there’s a connection around the world,” she said.

Harris still speaks at rallies and files complaints when she believes poor decisions are being made at TVA or in the nuclear industry, such as the construction and rapid ramp-up of new generators; the lax nuclear waste disposal regulations in the state that allow radioactive waste material to go in the same landfills as household waste; and the production of isotopes for military weapons in commercial power generators at Watts Bar.

Though Harris’ activism shows no signs of ceasing, her role as a mentor has shifted her focus to providing others with the information and skills they need to make decisions and fight for their safety.
“My legacy,” she said, “is that I didn’t write down a prescription and tell them to go get it filled… I don’t have a magic wand, what I’ve got is a pathway.”

Pat Banks | River Warrior on the Rise

By Jesse Wood

After hearing Robert Kennedy Jr. speak in 2000 at Eastern Kentucky University about environment problems in Appalachian, Pat Banks knew something had to be done, so she helped lay the ground work for integrating a Kentucky Riverkeeper into the Appalachian Studies program at EKU.

For the past few years, Banks has fought coal companies—and the government—while protecting Kentucky’s waterways as the Kentucky Riverkeeper.

She is involved in a current lawsuit pitting the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet against three coal companies: ICG Knott County, ICG Hazard and Frasure Creek Mining, a subsidiary of Trinity Coal. Cases such as these have opened her eyes to the partnerships between corporations and government, she said.

“Messaging has been very effective in getting our population and politicians to think this is the only way,” Banks said. “I think we have to come up with a better plan. It’s crucial we get our people behind us.”

Her goal this year is communicating with and educating the public on water pollution issues. She is working with two filmmakers on separate documentaries to be shown in public schools and viewed on public access channels.

Another recent project of hers, Shaped by Water, is a collaboration of multi-media artists who show their work in a traveling presentation at public schools, universities and galleries. Banks took these artists to polluted rivers and coal-fired power plants and flew with them over mountaintop removal sites.

“I am an artist, too, and have been an environmentalist my whole life,” said Banks, also a teacher, wife and mother. “Taking the river on as a project and mission as been a natural process for me.”

Jane Branham | I Just think that my people need help

Written by Hannah Morgan

Growing up in Pound, Va., in a family supported by her father’s coal mining wages, Jane Branham could not wait to get out of the coalfields and change the world. She lived all over the Southwest and worked as a traveling nurse, but plagued by dreams of her home, she returned to Wise County, Va. When she first saw mountaintop removal from the top of Fox Gap, she said to herself “right here is where I need to be changing the world.”

She became involved with the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards in 2006 when she met one of the leaders at a town festival. The mission of the organization touched her deeply, so she threw herself into the work. Since 2007, she has served as a board member and leader of the organization, using her words and her music to spread the message that mountaintop removal must end.

Through her experiences fighting to preserve the land, her eyes have opened to a new vision for Appalachia. Better access to quality, affordable health care, good education systems and new political leaders in the coalfields are amongst her many passions in the struggle for justice. “We need education, jobs, resources, and we need to preserve what we have,” said Branham.

Dr. Anna George | Enhancing the Life of Our Southeastern Waters

Written by Jeff Deal

For Dr. Anna George, Director and Chief Research Scientist of the Tennessee Aquarium, the waters of our Southeast might just be heaven’s own aquarium.

“The Southeast has more than half of all freshwater fish species found in the U.S., including some very colorful groups like shiners and darters,” said George. “Unfortunately, 30% of these beautiful animals are at risk of extinction, and they needed more champions.”

And champion she does. Dr. George has created a ‘best practices guide’ for threatened and endangered fish and has actively documented and researched the devastating effects of the billion gallon Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill that happened in 2008 in Harriman, Tenn.

“While documenting the impacts of the coal ash spill has been one of the hardest parts of my professional career,” said George. “I also feel hopeful when I watch the recovery and resilience of a community, whether it is the fish or the humans.”

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