This week hundreds of residents from Appalachia and beyond came to Washington, DC, to demand Congress end mountaintop removal coal mining and enforce the Clean Water Act.
They talked to their representatives in Congress and the White House, rallied, and made calls to call for and end this destructive practice that has damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of streams and flattened over 500 mountains, and threatens to destroy 1.4 million acres of mountaintops and forests by 2020. The visit was organized by several Appalachian grassroots organizations, including the Alliance for Appalachia and Appalachian Voices, where I previously served as executive director.
This week, I was deeply moved as I watched live streaming videos of local residents from Appalachia get arrested for holding sit-ins at Rep. Hal Rogers' and Rep. Nick Rahall's offices. I listened to them insist that they are sick and tired of the coal industry poisoning their drinking water, destroying the beauty of Appalachia, and strangling their communities while their Congressional representatives do nothing. I saw their elected representatives close the door in their faces.
At a Wednesday rally in DC, some shaved their heads as a symbolic act to draw attention to the stripping of our mountains - the photo with this column shows some of those folks. This followed on the heels of a similar demonstration led by some brave Appalachian women on Memorial Day on the steps of the WV state capitol. This time, Sierra Club organizer Bill Price was one of those who made this dramatic statement. See photos from I Love Mountains here.
This activism came the same week that many other local residents in Kentucky stood up to the coal industry at Environmental Protection Agency hearings about mountaintop removal coal mining permits. Our Kentucky Beyond Coal organizer Alex DeSha said the coal industry bused in hundreds of employees to the Tuesday hearing in Frankfort, but all left after former Massey Energy head Don Blankenship spoke only an hour into the hearing.
Meanwhile, Alex and other activists from the Kentucky Sierra Club and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) stayed until the hearing ended, offering "rational arguments recognizing the EPA's authority to step in where the state has consistently failed to act in the public interest."
Alex continued, "I was the last speaker of the night out of 120 speakers, making a final call for the EPA to not listen to the fear being peddled by the coal industry and stand strong on its objections in the face of systematic state failure to enforce the Clean Water Act."
He added that pro-coal attendees heckled many Sierra Club and KFTC speakers, with some of the hecklers even having to be removed by police. I know first-hand how intimidating these kinds of settings can be, and the fact that these volunteers stood their ground is very inspiring. There's video of the heckling here.
The next EPA hearing in Kentucky is today (Thursday) in Pikeville, Kentucky, and we and our allies will be there again.
Finally, last week my friend Maria Gunnoe, a powerful Appalachian woman and community leader, found herself in hot water at a House Committee on Natural Resources hearing in Washington, DC. Gunnoe - a mother herself - wanted to show a photo of the alarming water coming out of the tapat one Appalachia family's home as a symbol of what so many Appalachian coalfield families are facing - it was a photo of the family bathing their daughter in disgusting red water. The family lives near a mountaintop removal coal site.
A GOP representative not only refused to let her show the photo, but actually had Gunnoe questioned about child pornography by the Capitol Police. Mother Jones has more on the controversy:
"I had to pull my chin off the table," Gunnoe, a mother of two, said. "It gives you a very sick feeling when you're actually a protector of children." In 2009, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work defending rural West Virginia communities against the health and ecological impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining.
Maria, who described the incident as a "new low" in her 15-year fight to end mountaintop removal, told Politico:
"I wanted Congress to see this because it's what we have to deal with," she said."It is an obscene photo, and it's not because this girl doesn't have a bathing suit on. It's obscene because our children shouldn't be sitting in bathtubs full of red water."
The coal industry and their allies will do everything they can to keep lining their pockets at the expense of our health, our communities, and our environment. They bully Appalachian residents and pay big money to members of Congress to keep public health and environmental safeguards weak. And as Maria's story shows, they are willing to stoop to new lows all the time.
I am sick and tired of this - just like all these Appalachian neighbors of mine. We must end mountaintop removal coal mining.