Friday, June 03, 2005
Activists study Mountain Justice
The Mountain Justice Summer training camp taught activists how to initiate action on issues - such as mountaintop removal mining - facing rural communities.
PIPESTEM, W.Va. - The morning dawned slowly cloudy, breezy, spitting rain.
The day was announced by a songbird chorus, a honking flight of geese and the whine of Interstate 77. All that before the official wake-up call: "Morning y'all. It's 7:30."
This was the last full day of Mountain Justice Summer training camp last weekend at the Appalachian South Folklife Center, a boot camp for activists, who carry their opinions on their vehicles. One clearly conflicted Toyota had "Cars kill" painted on its side.
If bumper stickers can be trusted, the group is against nuclear war, against logging in national forests and, most of all, against mountaintop removal mining. This is what they plan to spend their summer fighting, and they were here for lessons in everything from Appalachian culture to sending coded messages and creeping through the woods to observe mine operations.
Already, some of the nearly 100 participants have been arrested in protests in two states this week.
Mountaintop removal mining is just what it sounds like. Using heavy machinery and explosives, the top of a mountain is torn away to get at seams of coal. What used to be the mountaintop is then shoved into valleys. More than 300,000 acres of Appalachian mountains have been leveled in this fashion. More than 1,000 miles of streams have been buried this way.
According to the mining industry, this is an efficient way to mine coal that produces flat land suitable for development. More than two-thirds of the coal mined in the United States in 2003 came from a surface mine. Each surface miner produces more than twice as much coal as an underground miner.
While U.S. coal production rose slightly between 1998 and 2003, the number of miners fell by nearly 17 percent.
According to environmentalists and many people who live near such operations, this is a disaster.
Blasting damages foundations and wells. Coal dust covers houses and fills lungs. Millions - sometimes billions - of gallons of toxic sludge are stored behind earthen dams that loom over houses and schools.
"Everybody has an idea of what America is, and I think this kind of violates that in a real gut-wrenching sort of way," said Paloma Galindo. "Who decided these people are disposable?"
Galindo said she has been a grass-roots organizer "all my adult life." She married into Appalachia.
When she began her activist life, Galindo said, she sometimes fell into the trap of thinking she knew the answers. That sometimes led to conflict between activists and the people and communities they were trying to help. She's outgrown that now and leads listening projects, a concept borrowed from Rural Southern Voice for Peace. Hers was the primary lesson of the weekend camp. Activists can't waltz in and impose solutions.
"You're going to listen," she told a chapel full of activists. "That's it. Listen."
Galindo led a similar project in Tennessee.
"We learned all sorts of information that was important to our campaign that we didn't even know was important to our campaign," she said.
Erin McKelvy, of Blacksburg, took part in the Tennessee project.
"You can't just say, 'I represent the interest of the people in the coalfields,'" she said.
Debbie Jarrell lives in West Virginia's Raleigh County. She wants the mountaintop removal operation behind her granddaughter's elementary school to close down.
She worries about the coal dust that inundates the school's ventilation system. She worries about whatever it is that makes school officials put water fountains off-limits to students on rainy days.
Most of all, she worries about the earthen dam 400 yards up a hollow from the school that holds more than 2 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge.
"The land wasn't made to do what they're doing to it," Jarrell said. "I've been watching them strangle my community holler by holler."
McKelvy said people far from Jarrell's community need to be worried, too.
"We rely on these mountains and these forests to provide us with breathable air and drinkable water," she said. "No amount of technology can do what these forests do for free. ... These mountains are more than just a pretty place to go on vacation. These mountains make life around here possible."
Mountain Justice Summer draws its inspiration from Freedom Summer, the 1964 effort to register black voters in the Deep South, and Redwood Summer, the 1990 Earth First! movement to save redwood forests.
The goal is to find common ground between organizers and residents, support indigenous organizations and orchestrate actions against the coal companies that practice mountaintop removal and other surface mining techniques.
Actions, organizer Hillary Hosta said, can mean knocking on a door, testing water, calling a newspaper editor or trespassing on company property to deliver a message to company officials.
On the heels of their training camp, MJS volunteers supported an indigenous organization, Coal River Mountain Watch, in two actions like that. In West Virginia on Tuesday, 16 people including Debbie Jarrell were arrested while trying to deliver a list of demands to Massey Energy officials near Marsh Fork Elementary School. Earlier that day, two MJS participants delivered the list to company headquarters in Richmond.
The logic of the activists' arguments is bound to win out eventually, Hosta said. The communities affected by the mining are bound to join in.
"I think it's literally just a matter of time," Hosta said. "The 'how' has to come from the communities themselves."