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Activists’ Field Trip to West Virginia: Reportback on Mountain Range Removal

Eighteen activists from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia gathered in West Virginia on November 7 and 8, for a heartbreaking, yet exciting weekend of witnessing, listening, and strategizing. The trip was organized for activists across the region to witness the devastation euphemistically known as mountaintop removal (hereafter called mountain range removal), to listen to people in the coalfields speak of life on the front lines, to network with local organizers, and to further develop strategy and tactics to stop this insanity.
Eighteen activists from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia gathered in West Virginia on November 7 and 8, for a heartbreaking, yet exciting weekend of witnessing, listening, and strategizing. The trip was organized for activists across the region to witness the devastation euphemistically known as mountaintop removal (hereafter called mountain range removal), to listen to people in the coalfields speak of life on the front lines, to network with local organizers, and to further develop strategy and tactics to stop this insanity.

We first went to Kayford Mountain, a fifty-acre patch on the top of a hill almost completely surrounded by the barren remnants of what once were ancient mountains. Larry Gibson, founder of the Stanley Heirs Foundation Park on Kayford, patiently tried to explain to us, over and over, with tears welling, what the mountains used to look like…where the people used to live…where the livestock once were… where it was he used to fish and swim and run from his grouchy uncle. He showed us the family cemetery at the top of Kayford Mountain, where the headstones were continually being knocked over by something known as flyrock: boulders as large as cars that land hundreds of feet from the blast site. He asked us, as we looked out over 17 miles of devastation in one direction, and over 30 miles in another…“which one is the union site,? he asked us, “…which one was destroyed responsibly?? This, a dry reference to Cecil Robert’s (United Mine Workers president) comment that mountain range removal is acceptable as long as it is done “responsibly.?

Three million pounds of dynamite per day are used in West Virginia, to blast off mountains and remove the flat seams of coal. The forests are clearcut; the trees are dumped into the valley fills, followed by the mountain itself. Slurry ponds are created to hold billions of gallons of toxic liquid containing arsenic, aluminum, mercury, lead, and other metals; their earthen dams break, causing such disasters as in Martin County, Kentucky. Hundreds of coal trucks careen at high speeds down tiny local roads. People die, killed by coal trucks, floods, dam breaks, and the flyrock itself. Ecosystems vanish—ecosystems of globally recognized biodiversity unique to the Appalachians. The earth’s topography is fundamentally altered.

We then went to the offices of the Coal River Mountain Watch, in Whitesville WV, where we were warmly greeted by Patty and Butch Sebok, Joe Barnett, and Bo Webb, who each shared a different perspective of the effects of mountain range removal and the struggle to preserve the affected communities. Patty said she got involved in the struggle because of the many coal trucks that daily passed her home and her childrens’ school. These trucks carried a legal limit of 120,000 pounds of coal, just increased from 80,000 pounds. However, they seldom abided by this weight limit, nor the set speed limit of 35 mph. Patty told us how she had tailed trucks going 65 mph. She was called to action as a result of two tragic accidents; cars were crushed by the speeding trucks, killing an elderly brother and sister in one instance, and three students in the second. State troopers failed to respond to the complaints of Patty or her neighbors about speed and weight violations, but were quick to respond once they began demonstrating with signs held on the roadside. The officers supported the truckers, or complained that there were too many offenses to enforce.
That evening after dinner, the eighteen activists who were on this trip and the four from the Coal River Mountain Watch met for a general discussion and strategy meeting. The night was quite productive, as diverse groups began a visioning process to plan for the coming Mountain Justice Summer (see below).

The following morning, everyone awoke together, and after cantaloupe and coffee, we drove 7 miles up the Coal River to the Marshfork Elementary School. We were stunned at what we saw. In the narrow river valley, this school sits directly underneath the enormous Schumate’s Branch sludge dam, which tenuously holds millions of gallons of toxic coal sludge. Next to the ‘slurry pond’ is an extensive, active mountain range removal site that blasted with heavy explosives all day long, until recently when they were forced to cease during school hours. Just a few hundred feet away, a coal preparation plant is in operation daily, releasing toxins into the air and water around the school. Bo told us that on a visit to the school, he saw the air intake vents coated with black soot. He called this area a ‘cancer cluster’: a vice principal, three teachers and a 17 year old girl have all died from cancer within the past few years, and currently, another 17 year old student is battling ovarian cancer.

From here we drove to Blair WV, the site of the famous “Battle of Blair Mountain.? This battle took place in 1921, when 6000-7000 armed coal miners tried to march to Mingo and Logan Counties to join miners struggling to unionize there. They were stopped in Blair by state police, armed mine bosses, and hired Baldwin-Felts thugs. For two weeks, gunfire was exchanged across the ridgetops, while the miners tried to pass through three mountain gaps, but were stopped by the machine guns of the State. The miners were finally defeated after the mine bosses called in the assistance of the National Guard, and planes flew over the woods dropping rudimentary bombs. This marked the first time in U.S. history that the U.S. government bombed its own citizens. We were given an amazing tour of the historic site by Kenny King, who pointed out which ridges are slated for destruction in the current proposal of Arch Coal for expansion of mountain range removal sites. Already much of Blair Mountain has been destroyed in the search for coal and profits. As we drove through the valleys, we saw once thriving communities that have been almost entirely depopulated by the mining companies.

We were shown many different faces of this complex struggle—this issue that includes all issues—and left this most beautiful area of West Virginia with tears in our eyes and resolve in our hearts. We look forward now, forward to organizing with our friends in the coalfields and allies across the country for a summer of empowering action against mountain range removal and the coming end to this unacceptable scourge. Mountain range removal will be stopped. Cultural harmony and biological heritage will be protected and restored.
 
 


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