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LOCAL Commentary :: Environment

Mountain Justice Summer Heats Up

Over 100 activists gathered in South WV to kick off Mountain Justice Summer, reinvigorating the movement to stop Mountain Top Removal
A movement was reborn this week at the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Southwest Virginia. In some ways, this movement is as old as the mountains it hopes to save… in other ways, it resembles a newborn baby taking its first breath; full of ancient wisdom, unlimited possibility and a fierce desire to survive.

“Mountain Justice? is it's name, and this incarnation, Mountain Justice Summer, is the love child of fed up coal miners and mountain residents, eager Earth Firsters and an eclectic collection of tireless folks from Tennessee to Virginia who demand an end to “Mountain Top Removal? and are dedicating this summer to stopping it.

Mountain Top Removal, as unbelievable as it sounds, is a coal-mining process in which companies like Massey, headquartered in Richmond, VA, literally blast off the tops of mountains and dump them into nearby valleys to grant access to seams of coal. As a result, the mountaintops are lost forever along with the huge trees, medicinal plants and erosion protection they provide.

Streams are polluted; over 1200 miles of headwater streams have been literally buried. Flooding due to erosion has cost South West Virginia over $1.2 billion. Slurry, the toxic black sludge that remains after coal is washed, is contained in “ponds? behind dams. Often these dams leak, and occasionally they break, causing massive damage.

In October of 2000, over 300 million gallons of slurry was released into the headwaters of Coldwater and Wolf Creeks near Inez, Kentucky. The environmental destruction resulting from this spill was greater than that of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, yet media coverage was virtually nonexistent.

Massey Coal Company refers to these predictable disasters as “acts of God?. This is also the blasphemous misnomer mining companies use to refer to the death of three-year-old Jeremy Davidson who was killed by a giant boulder that slammed through his trailer at 2 in the morning in August 2004. The boulder was dislodged by a strip mine operator working on an unpermitted haul road.

Now, Massey is requesting permits to increase its operations about 300 feet from Marsh Elementary School in Raleigh County, WV. Parents fear that the 2.9 billion gallon toxic sludge dam above the school could leak or break. The known toxins from the coal operations are clearly already causing health problems, like asthma. Several students and one teacher have died from leukemia. Residents worry that when disaster strikes at this mine site, it will be considered “an act of God?.

Many of the local activists at Mountain Justice Summer’s training camp last week wore shirts that said, “Stop Destroying My Mountain—God?. For communities struggling to keep their homes and children safe, toxic accidents, flooding sludge ponds and rolling boulders are only “acts of God? if “King Coal?, as they refer to the coal companies, is God.

After participating in Mountain Justice Summer Camp with people like Ed Wiley, a 46-year-old former miner whose granddaughter attends Mash Elementary, and Erin, a young VA Tech graduate whose creative mind is set on saving the mountains, it is clear that King Coal is only an idol. Where the Spirit is moving is in the hearts of the remarkable confluence of people who’ve put the rest of their lives on hold to save the mountains that embody the souls of the earth and people of Appalachia.

“What you have here is a remarkable collection of charismatic people?, says Dave Cooper, a Sierra Club veteran who’s spent four years traveling the country to educate people about MTR, working as a full-time volunteer for the last 2 years. Dave was inspired by Larry Gibson, a one-man anti-mining activist and resident of WV who has spent 18 years fighting the mining companies. Larry has been run off the road in his car and his dog was hung in retaliation for his steadfast refusal to sell his family’s piece of the mountain.

People like Larry, Dave, Ed and members of Coal River Mountain Watch, a local anti-MTR group, were amazed and thrilled at the arrival of over 100 mostly young activists and organizers who spent the week living in tents, attending workshops, playing music and organizing the rest of the upcoming Mountain Justice Summer. These folks are serious about everything, from security (conducted by nightly patrols who found intruders every night I was there), to cultural sensitivity exemplified by the “potty mouth jar? into which participants deposited a quarter every time they cursed (this seemed to be one of the main fundraisers of the week).

Much of the impetus for Mountain Justice Summer came from a field trip organized last November by Sue Daniels, an activist and biology professor from Virginia Tech whose tragic murder last year devastated the southeast activist community. One of her last actions was to call together a group of Blacksburg activists, Katuah Earth First folks from Ashville, NC, and others and take them to Larry Gibson’s property. “The first time I saw Mountain Top Removal at Larry’s, it was an extremely emotional experience,? said Icky, a Katuah Earth Firster. After witnessing the decimated mountains, the group went to Coal River Mountain Watch to meet with local activists.

Together, they began to talk about what a larger movement to save the mountains might look like. It was then that Sue put forward the idea of a summer of activism along the lines of “Redwood Summer? (a California gathering to save the redwoods in 1990) and Mississippi Summer (which addressed civil rights issues in the deep south in 1964). Most of the 20 people at that meeting left committed to making Mountain Justice Summer happen, says Icky, and went on to become key organizers.

By the end of camp, the number of trained organizers had grown exponentially. Fifty people have committed to participating for the whole summer, and many more will join as they can. From the camp, volunteers will continue on to parts of WV, VA, TN and KY to conduct listening projects and support local activists fighting Mountain Top Removal. They will converge in Richmond on July 8th to let Massey know the strength of their opposition. (Join the rally in Monroe Park at noon on the 8th!).

On May 31st, the last day of the training camp, those gathered again joined WV locals to protest conditions at Marsh Elementary School. Sixteen people were arrested trying to present a list of demands to Massey at the coal operating plant across from the school.

The five locals arrested yesterday and the many they represent will be working on this until there is justice in their mountains. What will happen to those who’ve joined them for the summer remains to be seen, but the experience of solidarity, of organizing across cultural lines for a common vision, of hard, common work and living close to the earth, is bound to add depth and wisdom to these impressive, impassioned activists. Certainly, the universe will bend a little closer to justice thanks to Mountain Justice Summer.
 
 


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