Elegy for Appalachia
Denver, CO (Sunday June 28, 2009) — I arrive outside the regional EPA office just after 2pm. It's the second day of PrideFest, and the far end of the 16th Street Mall is nearly deserted. On the far side of the street, a trumpet player sits on a bench, improvising a slow, sad tune. His name is Joe Ferrone, and his song is an elegy for Appalachia.
Joe and I are here because of the EPA's recent approval of 42 new mountaintop removal sites and Mountain Justice's subsequent call to action. Mountaintop removal is a deceptively antiseptic term for one of the most destructive forms of strip-mining ever devised by the mind of man (and something about the process makes me sure that it was a man who came up with the idea). It begins by denuding the top of a mountain — sometimes the lumber is sold, but more often it is simply burned — and then dynamiting its summit, reducing as much as a thousand feet of rock and soil to rubble. The peak's remains are then pushed into the nearest holler, blocking any streams that flow through the valley and entombing its plants, animals, and ultimately its the very history. The process is "necessary" because it allows the mining of coal seams too thin to be otherwise economically viable. After all of the coal is ripped from the mountain the former peak is "reclaimed" by further leveling its contours and planting grass — though often the mining companies don't even plant native species, and few trees or animals will return to the area.
After the Obama administration took office, it looked for a time like mountaintop removal would come to an end. The EPA issued a series of letters to the Army Corps of Engineers questioning the legality of four mountaintop removal sites. At the end of March EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson instructed the agency "to review other mining permit requests" and "follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment." But the victory was short lived.
"Mountaintop removal for coal mining is a horrible practice," Joe tells me. "It's very destructive for the environment, it's also very expensive, and it's absolutely deadly to the residents of Appalachia... It's a ridiculous practice and it should not be occurring, and the EPA, which is supposed to be a protection agency for the environment is actually permitting projects. It represents the stranglehold that coal has on our country, and has had for years and years and years."
The symbolic importance of mountaintop removal is not lost on others. Burning coal is one of the chief contributors to global warming, and has been linked to numerous health problems those living near mines and coal-fired power plants. Moreover, mountaintop removal provides only 7% of the coal used here in the US. As the outspoken NASA climate scientist and activist James Hansen recently wrote, "[i]f the Obama administration is unwilling or unable to stop the massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, can we honestly believe they will be able to phase out coal emissions at the level necessary to stop climate change?"
Joe, a former member of the local band Flobots, has recently been working with MoveOn.org in support of the Waxman-Markey climate bill. He acknowledges that Friday would have been a better day, but was constrained by his own schedule and the short time between when he learned of Mountain Justice's call for action and the scheduled dates. In fact, he wasn't even aware that he had been listed as the regional contact for today's action until I called to him on Thursday. Joe decided to make the best of the situation, but only one other person, Sarah Vekasi, responded to his call for help.
It's a problem Joe's all too familiar with. "I went to a kickoff meeting [for MoveOn.org's effort to elect Barack Obama], and I realized that Denver had a lot of people who wanted to participate. But we're not very good at organizing right now, as far as [creating a] council in Denver. There are a lot of people who will show up for events when they are events that are approved by MoveOn, but what there isn't in Denver is a core of six or ten or twelve members — some cities have fifty core members for MoveOn — who know how the MoveOn website works, and know what their roles are inside the organization."
As he says this Sarah arrives. She's made a sign and handouts based on information from Mountain Justice's and Coal River Mountain Watch's websites. Like Joe, she's disappointed in the turnout, but philosophical. I've heard from other organizers that today's Internet-centric culture makes it much more difficult to build sustained movements, and ask them if they feel if that's a factor today.
Sarah, an eco-chaplain who was involved in the creation of IndyMedia during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, isn't so sure. "I came to life as an activist before we had much of an Internet, before Google. Basically we had barely the beginnings of list serves... And it was different. People looked at the newspapers, and they knew what was going on based on the front page, on what the photos showed, which is good and bad..."
"There's definitely a trade off. I actually think there's even a trade off in terms of time. I think the speed goes against us a little bit. People don't take the time to read through things, think about it, write a letter, find an address..." But people also learn about issues through the Internet that they might never have known about otherwise, she adds. Sometimes the process is transformative. "I know about mountaintop removal because of the Internet. I know about it from a video on iLoveMountains.org, featuring Gauley Mountain in Ansted, West Virginia. And that video was so profound to me that it awoke a deep desire to help the people of West Virginia and mountaintop removal, and I'm moving there because of that."
"To me, mountaintop removal is a... social justice issue on top of absurd environmental degradation," Sarah continues. "I'm a rural girl. I was born here and grew up in Montana, and I have a lot of love for local, rural people who I know — because of my own experience — love our land. Where we live and... our livelihood... do not have to be in competition with each other. We don't have to do this. We don't have to dynamite the top of a mountain to get the last of the coal. There's really no reason."
Joe adds that mountaintop removal is just part of a much larger constellation of social and economic issues. "[W]hen you look into the history of energy in this country, you'll find a repeating pattern of partnerships between the government and the leaders of the energy industry, so there's an artificially low price for our energy. And that's not just in this country, but all around the world there is pressure to keep energy prices low, so low that the result is that human beings suffer because other human beings want lower energy prices. Governments have a big hand in making that happen. So there's a lot of suffering that occurs because of the desire for low energy prices."
"Energy can act as a funnel — it acts to funnel money upwards as opposed to downwards. It's a kind of trickle up, as opposed to a trickle down thing." He pauses for a moment. "It's connected to almost every single issue."
Indeed, few regions of the country are unconnected with the destruction being wrought in Appalachia. Even those of us living a thousand miles away in Colorado are tied to Appalachia — our power plants do not use Appalachian coal directly, but they do buy their coal from companies that operate mountaintop removal sites. "It's sort of invisible," Joe explains, "because it's not like you see someone blow the top off of a mountain every day... The only people who actually see [all of the effects] and do it are the people who actually work for Massey [Energy, one of the largest operators of mountaintop removal sites]. So it does have this cloak of invisibility around it." Like so many colonial ventures, mountaintop removal is hidden from those who benefit from it the most.
Part of the solution, Sarah thinks, is simply making it real to more people. "The more people who know what's going on and take it personally, the better. Imagine if the Flatirons were getting blown up, or Longs Peak or something. We would want people in Kentucky or Virginia to be moving out here to help us."
"Imagine if there was gold under the Flatirons," Joe adds.
After getting in touch with Mountain Justice, Joe wrote an email to the EPA decrying their decision to okay the destruction of 42 more Appalachian peaks. He shared with me their non-response.
EPA respects the rights of all people to make their voices heard on this issue and all issues concerning human health and the environment. EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law when reviewing all mining permit requests. We have a fundamental responsibility to protect water quality and the environmental integrity of streams, rivers and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. Our reviews and protections will be stronger to ensure we safeguard the health of communities, local waters and thousands of acres of watersheds in Appalachia.
When I ask him his opinion on the terse reply, Joe just shakes his head. "It was so obviously a legal statement that was designed by a legal professional..."
There is definitely discord within the agency, however. "I was kind of amazed when I called the EPA," Joe says. "I felt a lot more from the people who I talked to at the EPA than almost any other organization I'd ever called... The contractor who I talked to there actually said, 'I'm so glad you called, me personally. Not on behalf of the EPA, because I'm a contractor and I'm not allowed to speak on behalf of the EPA, but I am so glad that you're calling in in regards to mountaintop removal. Because I think you're right.'"
It's this kind of response that makes both Joe and Sarah feel that this is one issue where a more traditional pressure campaign — phone calls, letters, and emails to President Obama, our senators and representatives, and the EPA — can still have an effect. It's also important that we continue to support groups like Mountain Justice and Coal River Mountain Watch however we can, whether that means participating in actions in our own cities, donating to them, or becoming more directly involved. Right now, Sarah observes, "it's a holding action. We need to save the mountains while we can, while the policy gets shifted."
She pauses for a moment, and the three of us look across the street at the EPA building. A security guard is standing outside smoking a cigarette, trying very hard to look like he isn't watching us. It's a bit unnerving, but nothing like the threats and violence that local activists working against mountaintop removal face. Many have been followed by local thugs. Some have been beaten.
"If you read in a newspaper or a blog about a local person who's been stepping up," Sarah says, "[write] them a personal letter [saying] 'I see what you're doing and I'm really proud of you, and I can imagine how much courage that takes...' Those letters are worth more than a gazillion dollars."
She looks off into the distance, her heart already in West Virginia.
"That kind of solidarity can't be talked about [too much]."
President Barack Obama's contact information: http://whitehouse.gov/contact/
Representative (first district) Diana DeGette's contact information: http://degette.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=48...
Representative (second district) Jared Polis's contact information: http://polis.house.gov/Contact/
Representative (third district) John Salazar's contact information: http://house.gov/salazar/contact.shtml
Representative (fourth district) Betsy Markey's contact information: http://betsymarkey.house.gov/Contact/
Representative (fifth district) Doug Lamborn's contact information: http://lamborn.house.gov/Contact/
Representative (sixth district) Mike Coffman's contact information: http://coffman.house.gov/contact/
Representative (seventh district) Ed Perlmutter's contact information: http://perlmutter.house.gov/office.shtml
EPA (region 8) office contact information: http://epa.gov/region8/feedback.html