Front Porch Blog

Coal: From Surry, Va to Blair Mountain, Wv

In 1921, more than 10,000 coal miners marched through southern West Virginia for their right to unionize, for their right to a decent wage, for reasonable hours and other rights that we take for granted today. On Blair Mountain the march erupted into a violent skirmish between the marchers and local authorities and hired coal company union busters. The violence finally ended when federal troops were called in but not until bombs were dropped from planes on miners, an estimated million rounds were fired and over 100 people died.

Anti union fighters in battle

This mountain is now slated to meet the same fate that over 500 other Appalachian peaks have met. There is coal in Blair Mountain and the coal industry has decided it is best retrieved through mountaintop removal coal mining. Much of Blair Mountain may be blasted to bits and dumped into the adjacent valleys to expose the coal seems that lie within.

For many Appalachian people, local community members, miners, environmentalists, laborers and historians this is simply unacceptable. Earlier this month, a couple hundred people retraced the miners path to Blair Mountain in a 50 mile march through southern West Virginia. At the foot of the mountain, the march culminated in a rally to save Blair on Friday and Saturday, June 10th and 11th.

The rally attracted 1,000 people from the coalfields and all over the United States who would rather see Blair Mountain preserved than flattened for a few seams of coal.

The following is a speech by my friend Betsy Shepard of Surry County, Va given on the evening of Friday, June 10th at the culmination of the Blair Mountain March.

Good evening!!

My name is Betsy Shepard and I am here to talk about my community’s fight against the largest coal fired power plant in the state of Virginia—and I will, but first…..can we talk about mountains for a minute?

I grew up in the mountains and being here in the West Virginia mountains is making me feel very nostalgic.

I haven’t lived in the mountains for many years, but I can still close my eyes and imagine the bright green fiddleheads of mountain ferns and know exactly what they smell like.

I can picture that spot driving up our mountain to my childhood home–where my ears would pop and the temperature would drop a glorious 10 degrees. The way the air smelled. The way the water sounded coming down the rocks.

I’ll never forget going on vacations as a child and my whole family commenting on how bad the “city water” tasted compared to our delicious well water.

And I will never, ever forget the magic of walking through the forest, stumbling upon the magnificent lady slipper orchid, and feeling like the luckiest person in the whole entire world.

So I don’t know about you all, but I love mountains!

Today, I live in a different kind of God’s Country. I live in Virginia Farmland, in a little place called Surry County.

Surry is just across the James River from Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg. We’re home to the plantation that was given to Pocahontas as a marital dowry, and we’re about 15 miles from the glorious—and very polluted—Chesapeake Bay.

Until recently, our big claim to fame in Surry County was that we were the last county in Virginia with no traffic light.

Most of you, however, probably know Surry County for one of our more famous residents—a certain football player involved in dog fighting. Yes, Michael Vick. That’s us.

We are also home to a large nuclear power plant and its two million pounds of spent radioactive waste. That plant is about 8 miles from my house.

We are not NIMBYs. We don’t hate electricity. We accept the risks of living near a nuclear power plant. We believe in jobs and businesses.

My husband is a self employed plumber. He’s also a volunteer firefighter, and a town councilman.

I do the books and office work for our business. I home school our children and am the outgoing Vice President of our Chamber of Commerce.

We believe in jobs and we know first-hand what it’s like to live hand to mouth. To juggle the bills, to stand in the aisle at Wal-Mart and try to figure how many diapers you can afford for your baby, and hope that the work is still there next week, next month, next year.

All so you can live in a small town, and raise your kids with small town values, and not live in a loud, dirty city. (No offense to those who like cities.)

And I have a lot of respect for the hard working miners. Can we please take a minute and acknowledge how hard these folks work at jobs most people could not hack, so they can provide for their families?

So now to my situation: Two years ago they announced plans to build a massive coal fired power plant in my community. It would be the biggest coal plant in the state of Virginia. Eight miles from my house in the other direction.

Suffice to say, most of us were not real impressed.

First of all, the electricity from the coal power plant is not for us. The company that wants to build it serves Northern Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

And, of course, this company plans to use Appalachian coal obtained through mountaintop removal coal mining.

This coal will be trucked into our community by the ton.

It will be burned by the ton.

And, according to the company who wants to build it, it will send toxic and carcinogenic pollutants into our air by the ton.

12,000 pounds of soot per day is what the company is proposing.

12,000 pounds of soot falling on our kids, in our rivers, on our gardens, on the food y’all will eat from our farms.

There’s also lead, arsenic, mercury, and about a million other things most of us can’t even pronounce.

What doesn’t go up smokestacks will be captured in the ash.

Ash that will be piled seven stories tall, over hundreds up acres, literally in people’s back yards, in floodplains, and over the town’s well water supply.

The plant and ash piles will occupy 2/3rds of the small town.

It will become the town.

It will be 3 miles from our schools; upwind of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and all of Hampton Roads; and of course, on the same planet as the rest of you.

Our livelihoods depend on it not being built.

Our crops can’t take the ozone.

Our fish and crabs can’t take the nitrogen.

And should our water table become contaminated, our livestock can not survive on city water.

The company, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative seems to think we are rather dumb. They tell us things like, “The only thing coming out of the smokestacks is water vapor.”

We know that’s not true. We read their application. We may be rural, but we can read.

They tell us things like, “Don’t worry; you won’t be able to see the 650 foot smokestacks because we will plant 100 foot trees.”

We can also do basic math.

And my personal favorite: “The landfill will never leak.”

Of course, when my husband asked, “So you’ll put a lifetime guarantee on it?”

The response was, “Don’t be silly, Nothing lasts forever!”

Now I’m not saying we don’t have some dull knives in our drawer.

The Mayor of the town who approved this project did ask if they were going to make the coal at the coal plant. And the Chair of our County Supervisors said that if we didn’t take it, our neighboring county would, and we would get all the pollution and they would get all the money.

Our elected officials and these companies are fully prepared to sell out us and our children.

Most people in my community do not want to sell out our children.

Most people in my community do not want to sell out your children.

When I told them I was coming here, they asked me to tell you…

…that the children in your community do not deserve any less consideration than our own children!

They asked me to tell you that we are in this together. And we stand in solidarity with the people of Appalachia.

Before this coal plant fell in our laps we did not know about mountaintop removal.

We did not know.

And now we do.

And we want no part of it.

Let me be clear: We don’t want to take jobs from anyone!

We know what it’s like to try to provide for your family with the best alternative you’ve got.

But there has got to be a better choice for my community and your community than the choice between flipping burgers and flat out destroying where we live so we can feed our kids and pay our bills!

Of course we need electricity.

Of course, my community needs jobs.

Of course this community and all Appalachian communities need jobs.

But, we do not need jobs that pay in disease and destruction.

Now, there are those who say, “We need to take one for the team.”

They say electricity needs to remain “affordable” and without mountaintop removal and coal fired power plants, electricity rates would skyrocket.

Newsflash: When you are robbing Peter to pay Paul, it’s only a good deal if you’re not Peter!

And when we say that we’re not willing to take one for the team, what is it that they call us? Socialists.

Isn’t that the opposite of a socialist?

No thank you on volunteering to take one for the team. Because as far as I can tell, we’re not really on the team.

I lived in Northern Virginia for a few years. I saw how those folks lived. I cleaned their houses—their huge houses.

We don’t live that in Surry County.

We don’t have home theaters.

We go to the library to get online.

We hang our laundry and we run woodstoves.

In Surry County a “Blackberry” is a crop.

We don’t have “security systems.” We have dogs and we have guns.

And I can assure you the guys at the hunt clubs aren’t charging iPods, iPads, or iPhones.

I’m sure not one of our farmers has a Nook or a Kindle, and I’d bet good money if you asked them, they wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about.

We don’t do all this because we’re environmentalists, we do it b/c we’re country. And we’re cheap.

When this all started they were showing us pictures of all the electronics and things that they were saying we needed all this power for. We sat there looking at each other asking, “What is all that?”

And when we told them we didn’t want this coal plant, they asked us, “Well, what’s your alternative?”

Excuse me? What’s our alternative? To what?

To making sure that the rest of the state—the rest of the country—continues to get cheap electricity on the backs of poor communities?

So they can live in ways that is so full of waste and extravagance?

We’re not saying folks have to live like us.

But, likewise, we shouldn’t have to eat it so they can live like that.

Lately I think about that big Firestone Tire recall that happened about 10 years ago: the tires were shredding off SUVs and people were getting injured and dying. Turned out the Firestone workers were on strike and non-union workers were the ones on the lines creating these malfunctioning tires.

Could you imagine if Firestone Tires turned to the American people and said, “Look. We need to keep tires affordable. What’s your alternative?”

Instead, we all understood that injury and death were not an acceptable outcome.

Not an acceptable side effect.

We understood that this company was going to be the one to eat the costs—no matter what they were.

And furthermore, we all understood that the company was going to have to figure out how to create a product that did not result in injury and death.

The coal companies and the electric companies need to be held to these same standards!

We need to stand together and demand that these companies go back to the drawing board to figure out an alternative.

And if they are unable to create jobs and create a product in a safe and affordable way, then maybe they are in over their heads.

Maybe they need to stop giving millions of dollars to politicians and start spending that money on hiring some people with the ability to think outside their one-trick-pony box.

Before I end, I must say “thank you” to some of the women who have not only been instrumental in the fight to save mountains, but have inspired and motivated us to fight to save our community.

Women like Kathy Selvage and the late Judy Bonds.

As we sat in our homes, freaking out about our future, we saw amazing footage of these women. We wept as we watched their stories and their fights.

And we realized we could no longer entertain the thought of not fighting.

We could no longer tell ourselves, “It can’t be done.” That David could not walk straight up to Goliath and kick him in the junk.

Because, obviously, these brave mountain women were doing it.

They are doing it.

And now, we’re doing it.

You all are doing it.

And tomorrow we will meet up the brave folks who’ve been doing it in earnest for this last week.

We are in this together!

We are going to fight to keep MY community from being a sacrifice zone.

We are going to fight to keep THIS community from being a sacrifice zone.

We are going to fight so that generation after generation after generation can experience the magic of walking through the forest and stumbling upon the magnificent lady slipper orchid.

We are going to fight for real jobs and real choices!

We are going to fight for the Appalachian Mountains!

And we’re going to start right here, right now with Blair Mountain!

Click here for more information and more images of the Blair Mountain March.

Click here to learn more about, and to take action on, the coal-fired power plant proposed for Betsy’s home in Surry County, Va.




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