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Allen Hershkowitz’s Blog

It Ends At Coal River Mountain

Allen Hershkowitz

Posted December 8, 2009

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Yesterday, on the day that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change opened in Copenhagen, I attended an anti-mountaintop removal mining rally in Charleston, West Virginia, along with more than 300 concerned citizens from West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia. Joined by my colleague Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a parade of eloquent, impassioned speakers rose to testify against the abuses of the coal companies who practice mountaintop removal mining (MTR), the most destructive form of coal mining on Earth.

MTR is destroying West Virginia’s ecology, economy, and cultural heritage. It is doing the same in Kentucky and other Appalachian regions. Most of the companies perpetrating this ecological and culture-destroying crime in West Virginia are based out of state, often supported by New York banks.

Yesterday’s event was the most inspiring protest rally I have ever attended in my life, starting with ecological and anti-war protest rallies I attended back in the late 1960s. Without exception, no protest event has ever lifted my soul like the Save Coal River Mountain rally that I attended yesterday in Charleston.

The debate surrounding how the United States will control the emissions that contribute to climate change will be shaped in large part by how we come to terms with our nation’s dependence on coal. This puts West Virginia, Kentucky and other regions in Appalachia at the epicenter of that debate. And within West Virginia, the future of Coal River Mountain is ground zero in the current battle over how coal should be mined.  Will this scenic, forested gem of a mountain, part of a regional watershed, be blown into rubble, and its adjacent waterways contaminated with coal mining waste, or will it become the symbol of a revitalized Appalachia, an Appalachia that is looking towards a future filled with diverse economic options (including ecologically safer forms of coal mining), a future based on protecting water supplies, forest resources and communities?

Everything is pregnant with its contrary, and at the rally the presence of pro-MTR coal miners and operatives, their non-stop efforts to try and drown out the event with incessant, blaring truck horns, their efforts to drown out with curses and shouts of “coal, coal, coal” even the benedictions given by ministers who came to show support for protecting Coal River Mountain, all of that hostility provided our gathering with the opportunity to display human gracefulness and spiritual compassion at its finest. We were separated from the pro-MTR crowd, many of whom were paid to show up with professionally manufactured signs, by steel gates, fifty feet, and countless state troopers. But the inclusive words from the podium, the spirit-based outreach, our authentic desire to build a more sustainable, empathic community, made the barrier between us irrelevant.

The rally was a revelation. It began with the singing of Amazing Grace. Allen Johnson, from Christians for the Mountains, gave a benediction. The effort by the pro-MTR operatives to drown him out with blaring truck horns and yelling was truly obscene. During the benediction we stood in silent remembrance of the American lives lost at Pearl Harbor sixty-six years before, and Allen reminded us that the explosive force that shattered so many lives at Pearl Harbor is bombarding the mountains of Appalachia every hour of every working day.

On the eighth day of his anti-MTR fast and speaking to the miners over their shouts and truck horns, Roland Micklem was next to the podium and said “We must treat our opponents with the recognition that there is something of God in every one of us.” He made me think of the spirit-driven writers of Dead Sea Scrolls, the Sons of Light, who wrote almost the exact same phrase. He was prophetic: “We must set an example of how to treat people.”

One after another the spiritual outreach focused on building an ecologically sane community kept coming. From Judy Bonds, the feisty Goldman Environmental Award winner: “Preach with your life.” From Eric Blevins of Mountain Justice: “The mountains are a reflection of Devine creation. They deserve our respect.”  From Zoe Beavers of SEAC: “The Earth is the Lord and pollution is a sin.” From the Reverend Jim Lewis: “Jesus tells us that one cannot serve both God and mammon.”

What a contrast to the ugly aggression displayed across the barriers. The truck horns kept blaring, trying to no avail to drown out the pleas for sanity coming from the podium. But in a brilliant ju-jitsu move that energized the crowd, Judy Bonds, who has dealt with threats from thugs before, held up a sign that read “Honk If You Love Mountains.” And that turned every blaring truck horn into a celebration among the anti-MTR crowd, and since the truck horns were more or less non-stop, so was our celebratory joy. Each speaker, including RFK Jr., yelled “Honk If You Love Mountains” when the coal truckers tried in vain to drown out every voice of reason among us with their horns.

In the past ten years there have been 10,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in West Virginia that have not been prosecuted. Massy coal company alone has violated the Clean Water Act 2,000 times. Lead, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, mercury, acids, respirable particles, soot, debris, are all raining down on West Virginia from its coal industry.

Although the blasting that has begun on Coal River Mountain has been temporarily stopped by regulators, we are left to wonder: Will the prohibition hold?

 “I’ve been traveling for 25 years across this country, trying to find resistance, and today I think I’ve finally found it.” said Larry Gibson, one of Appalachia’s true heroes who has been working for decades to educate politicians, regulators, the media and anyone who might listen about the ravages perpetrated by coal companies engaging in mountaintop removal mining. Larry’s home sits astride the Kayford mountain MTR site, a prime example of egregious corporate greed, ecological ignorance and disregard for community interests if there ever was one.

Maria Gunoe spoke as well. Maria, from the Ohio [W. Va] Valley Environmental Coalition, is another Goldman Environmental Award winner. She has lost property owned by her family for generations and lost her clean drinking water because of nearby MTR operations. Like so many in West Virginia, her son will be leaving shortly for his military assignment. “It don’t take a scientist to know that blowing up mountains is wrong.” she said. “People willing to blow up mountains are intruders, they can’t be from here and do that. People who think that jobs are more important than water haven’t had to live without water like I have.”

Maria’s military son continues a long tradition in West Virginia: The state has the highest number of Medal of Honor winners, the highest percentage of military enlistees, the highest number of injured veterans in the United States. And what do those heroes come back to after they fight for our liberty? This state, with the most abundant base of natural resources, is among our nation’s poorest. The wealth is extracted and taken by out of state coal companies, leaving behind a legacy of deadly pollution and irreparable damage that will never heal.

Bobby Kennedy is a great speaker. But if anyone brought the house down at the rally yesterday it was Lorelie Scarbro from Coal River Mountain Watch. I have had the privilege of spending time with Lorelie on numerous occasions and she is one of the kindest people you might ever meet. “I’m the widow of a miner. I’m the mother of a miner. I’m the granddaughter of a miner. I’m the sister of a miner. I’m the sister-in-law of a miner.” At this, even the pro-MTR operatives were silenced, though not their horn blaring trucks driving up and down the road. Addressing the pro-MTR crowd she said “If there is an honorable man out there you would be fighting to keep our water clean. Go get your 80 hour card, and mine the mountains properly, not by blowing them up.” No one could tell her to go back home. No one could tell her to go get a job. No one chanted “coal, coal, coal” at her. The pro-coal miners fell silent. They knew Lorelie was right. They knew she had paid her dues, she had the moral authority to silence them and she did. “I’m fighting now for my grandchild. I want him to have a better life than the other men in my family.”

Of course, when Bobby Kennedy got to the podium, the rally was invigorated. Bobby’s presence, his authenticity as a great environmentalist and his representation of an iconic American family with longstanding ties to Appalachia, validated the efforts of everyone in attendance. Bobby’s presence confirmed for many that they were indeed on the side of moral American justice. Before ascending the podium, Bobby had gone over to speak with the pro-coal operatives. He waded in among them, among professionally made anti-Kennedy banners, listening to what they had to say. Before that, he met with the Secretary of the State’s DEP, confronting the agency head about lax enforcement, his agency’s willful ignorance of more than 10,000 water quality violations during the preceding ten years. The pro-coal operatives gave Bobby an American flag, which he used to very good effect during his speech at the anti-MTR podium.

“If a foreign entity put a poison in all American waterways that made all of our fish unsafe to eat, what would you call those who did that?” he asked. “If a foreign entity put a poison in our air and food that damaged the ability of our children to think and compete intellectually for the rest of their lives, what would you call those who did that?” We all knew the answer.

The horns continued to blare loudly, but Bobby had a reply: “Honk if you love the mountains!” Bobby told a story of when his father, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was taking on union boss Jimmy Hoffa. “When I was a boy and my dad was going after the thugs who were corrupting unions, those same kinds of trucks would pass by our home day and night, blaring their horns. They want to stifle democracy. They are afraid of dialogue, they are afraid of the truth. We were not intimidated then and I am telling you that we will not be intimidated now.” The rally went wild. Bobby spoke for forty minutes, and he did a great job reminding us all that MTR is immoral, it is a crime. Echoing Judy Bonds who spoke before him, Bobby told the crowd that our children will thank us for this work, that this is a fight larger than MTR, that our battle is about taking back American democracy, it is a spiritual fight, it is historic.

Environmentalism, inspiration from nature, and spirituality have been joined for millennia. Moses and the ancient Jews, Buddha, and Jesus all had religious epiphanies in the wilderness. Personally, my own religiosity routinely guides my ecological worldview, and vice versa. In the course of my work at NRDC, I have worked with Evangelicals, Unitarians, Christians, Methodists and Jews. But nothing that I’ve done in the past compares with the spiritual inspiration I felt yesterday in Charleston.

Last month I was in Jerusalem, and I cried as I prayed and placed my hands upon the Western Wall of the Second Temple, the holiest place in Judaism, a location just astride the parcel of land from which God took the soil to create Adam. Later that same day I walked the Stations of the Cross, and visited the location where Jesus was crucified. And I visited the Dome of the Rock, from whence Muhammed rose to meet with God. I was moved to tears in those places, Yesterday’s protest rally, mobilized to save Coal River Mountain, inspired me in the same way. It was so immediate, so relevant, and so uplifting.

The environmental crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. It is caused by an absence of spiritual empathy. The fight against blowing up Coal River Mountain is an effort to repair that, it is about more than saving a mountain, it is about changing the cultural assumption that it is OK to destroy Appalachia, it is about changing the cultural assumption that it is OK to destroy our neighbor’s water supplies, it forces us to ask ourselves: How should we treat the organism that gives us air to breathe and water to drink? The fight over Coal River Mountain is bigger than Appalachia, it is a fight for our souls, and our democracy.

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MelissaDec 8 2009 03:44 PM

A beautiful piece, Allen. Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for the work you are doing.

RichardDec 9 2009 05:05 AM

What's happening in West Virginia is indicative of the reality underlying our efforts to stop global warming. That is the story of local destruction of the land with local water and air pollution being part of the massive increase in global warming gases. Ending global warming would require an end to all these destructive practices.

In this case there is the issue of how to address coal workers' rightly fear of losing their jobs. However, we also have to face the reality that the rest of adjusting to energy prices that reflect the true cost of energy. Can we face a future where our standard of well-being is measured by the quality of our relationship with the earth (including other people) instead of by the number and size of our grown-up toys?

Nick RegaladoDec 13 2009 07:54 PM

Great write up of the rally, Allen. I feel the same for the most part. It was a great experience. Glad you were there. Thanks for everything.

Bob KincaidDec 13 2009 08:19 PM

Thanks for being there, Allen. Thanks as much or more for sharing your impressions both of the rally itself and the desperate urgency of the struggle as it continues to unfold.

The problems we face in Appalachia are monumental, but not insurmountable. All we need is the energy and dedication of people of good will, willing themselves not to stand down, not to be intimidated into silence and UNwilling to accept anything less than full citizenship for ALL the people of Appalachia.

Lorelei ScarbroDec 13 2009 09:30 PM

Wow. I am so thankful for the heart of the people at NRDC. Allen, Rob, and Bobby just to name a few. We are blessed to be supported by these people who understand that Coal River Mountain is a symbol of hope in the struggle to stop this destruction. Throughout Appalachia the indigenous people have been trampled by corporate greed and for a lot of us this mountain is the line in the sand. Thanks for being there and for all you do to halt the oppression that surrounds us. We could not do what we do without knowing you all are there with us.

Bill GillespieDec 15 2009 11:35 AM

I would like to thank you for this great read. I so needed this information.

Just spent the last few years trying to reduce toilet paper waste in North America and really anywhere that the spring-loaded toilet paper roller is used, which could be as much as 95% of all households. Just think
if we could save 20 to 50% of every roll of toilet paper. We have done just that with thousands of homes already using this product, which could have a dramatic impact on our enviroment. I am saying there is hope on the horizon for reducing toilet paper usage. Once again, thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront.

James P. HigginsDec 16 2009 08:23 PM

Thank you, Allen. Truth is great fuel for eloquence, and eloquence in the service of truth nourishes the spirit.

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